15 December 2011

Help My Friend, Mr. Bailey

Being that we're in the Christmas season, I've thought lately about It's a Wonderful Life. In case you were raised by wolves--heathen wolves, at that--the movie is about a guy named George Bailey (the legendary James Stewart) who is convinced he's so useless that his family would be much better without him than with, and he elects to jump off a bridge to his death. He is stopped by an Angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), who walks him through an alternate reality version of the town as it would have been without him in it. By the end of the film, George has seen the ripple effects his life has had for the better and comes to realize his own value to those he loves.
The look of a man who has come to believe his entire existence is a waste.
Of course, I am not a movie character (so far as I know), which means there's no Clarence to escort me through a Travisless world. I must instead rely exclusively on the feedback I receive from other people to indicate to me that I have had (or am having) a positive effect on their lives. Some may misinterpret this as a crass plea for ego-stroking, and I trust that you will understand that is not at all my intent. A former teacher of mine recently informed me she is returning to the profession after a decade absence and that she will have a whole new passion and perspective on the job because of insights I've recently shared. Two former classmates have given me credit for starting their own blogs. A new friend has thanked me for being helpful to her at a very difficult time in her life, and I must tell you that thank you means more to me than any award I may have ever had a shot at receiving.

If we think of goodwill as a pyramid scheme, then these people would all kick up "points" to me, and those who owe a debt of goodwill to them would indirectly also be beneficiaries of my contributions to the whole operation. There is a danger, of course, in thinking in such terms; not only does it omit that we are, ourselves, under yet more people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, but there is the possibility that Selfishness may seek to pervert the whole thing. Rather than take a measure of gratification at knowing you've had a positive impact on others, Selfishness would have you believe that those people are somehow beholden to you, etc. Just as before, I must trust that you, dear reader, understand this is not how I perceive things to be.

In fact, I have a difficult time seeing and accepting the positive ripple effects I've had. It's in my nature to downplay such things, and to overlook them. I think this was part of why I was so drawn to the temptation of taking my own life, in a strange way. It was never a conscious thought of mine, but looking back I have to believe that on some level, I hoped that I would at least merit some kind of glowing memorial from family and friends. I'm certain this is part of the appeal of dying to many who are depressed though, like myself, I suspect the majority do not process this as a conscious thought.
Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
I do not share this with you that you might lavish me with praise. This is not about my inner George Bailey needing attention. Rather, I ask that you be mindful that those around you may be a George Bailey, longing to hear such things about themselves. They may even need it. On the off chance that someone you know has a low sense of their value as a human being, I challenge you to compliment and thank at least three people today. It doesn't have to be some kind of "Wind Beneath My Wings" tribute. Thank an old friend for introducing you to Spin Doctors in middle school. Tell your brother you still get a kick out of watching The Three Stooges and thinking about him when you do. Make sure to Like something that a coworker shares on Facebook that seems to have gone unnoticed by anyone else.

Perhaps they seem trivial to you. But your acknowledgment is not trivial, I assure you. I'll prove it to you. Accept my challenge and see if the recipients of your three thank yous and/or compliments don't make known their appreciation for your kind words. You don't have to be Clarence and show the George Baileys of your world all the ways that they've made the world a better place. But you can acknowledge something they've done that has had an impact of some kind on you.
Think of yourself in this picture, then go say something nice to someone else you think is in the picture with you.