Everyone is familiar with “before and after” pictures. Some show a positive difference – “before and after” diet photos – and some a more negative result – usually pictures of celebrities “then” and “now.” But whether they flatter or expose, they make a point that cannot be ignored. These images are designed to inform the viewer of something that they might not otherwise see or understand; that is, the changes that have taken place to the individual involved – over time. But it isn’t just people who become manifestations of the treatment, or mistreatment of time! We see similar photos of things both natural such as landscapes or man-made objects such as buildings or cities. The passage of time affects all things but often terrible things occur that had we been aware, we might have stepped in and prevented or at least alleviated to some extent the damage those things created. The problem with such issues is that there is a point in time at which it is almost impossible to prevent the inevitable. But there is no doubt that the passage of time does much to hide the decay that is taking place, a reason why these “before and after” images are so uniquely informative! When you see the difference between what was and what is, sometimes even the most brain-dead wake up at least a little bit but usually when it is decades too late to do anything! Alas, often the result of knowing is painful when you realize that you did or accomplished nothing to prevent.
Now I did have a “Eureka!” moment when I recently watched that famous “Christmas” movie, It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra. The story arose from a “Christmas card” created by the author of the story. It’s an interesting look at how the matter went from a sort of pamphlet that the author couldn’t sell to a publisher but ran off himself and mailed as a Christmas greeting, to the film itself. It wasn’t all that popular at its release but over time has been recognized as the great “story” that it is. I will not go deeply into the narrative save to say when all appears lost for the hero, George Bailey, his guardian angel is permitted to fulfill his desire to “never have been born.” Most people never realize the influence that their lives have had on those around them, but George’s life was particularly powerful. For instance, as a child, he saves his brother from drowning and deliberately fails to deliver a prescription that the local pharmacist for whom he works, put in the wrong drug when the man is overcome upon learning of his son’s death from influenza. During the war, George’s brother saves the lives of a group soldiers and is given the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism. Later on, George takes over his dead father’s business and by so doing allows decent, ordinary people to buy houses and live good lives, something that he later learns would not have been the case otherwise. The owner of the local bank, a man named Potter, is a real villain to the point at which he keeps the money that George’s sweet but rather inept uncle accidentally leaves at Potter’s bank on Christmas eve, the absence of which now finds George in danger of criminal prosecution and imprisonment. This is the point in the film at which he goes to the river to commit suicide and is interrupted by guardian angel Clarence who grants him his wish never to have been born.
My “E” moment came when George, now never having lived, returns to Bedford Falls – the name of his home town – and discovers the consequences of his life – or rather the consequences of his never having been born. The first thing we learn is that the town is now named “Pottersville” proof that evil old Mr. Potter accomplished all of his aims because George wasn’t there to prevent. The town is filled with bars and strip joints and George sees a young woman friend whom he helped to a better life being put in a paddy wagon after she was taken from a “place of ill-repute.” All during his time in Pottersville, George learns such things as the fact that the druggist had been imprisoned for twenty years after poisoning the patient whom George had saved, that his mother had become a worn out, unhappy woman running a boarding house, that the housing development his company had financed was still a vacant lot and he finds his brother’s grave in the cemetery. George tells Clarence his brother could not have died because he had saved all of those men. Clarence then responds, “All those men died George, because your brother was not there to save them because you were not there to save him!” George also meets his wife, who has become a lonely and unhappy spinster. It is then that Clarence points out to George, whatever would happen to him as a result of the lost money, his life was worth living, that it truly was “. . . a wonderful life.”
At this point, George takes back his wish and his life is restored. Neither does he care what his own fate will be. It is enough that what was will be restored! The film then shows him running through the streets of Bedford Falls in the snow and blessing his business that had done so much for so many as well as all the beloved, ordinary, decent stores and homes on the Main Street. He passes the movie theater and the film being shown is “The Bells of St. Mary’s” a wonderful uplifting film of the mid 40s. Incidentally, the actor who played Clarence also appeared in that film! In other words, Bedford Falls is the decent, godly blessed home that it had been though, of course, nothing has changed as far as George’s circumstances are concerned. He still faces possible prosecution and imprisonment but it doesn’t matter! Of course, he goes home and finds that word has gotten out that he was in need and everybody in town comes and brings him money from small amounts to large so that the missing $8,000 is rapidly replaced. But the most important thing is that George now understands that no good man’s life is without value and that the “before” is worth fighting for lest it become the “after.”
Ah, but what was my “Eureka!” moment? That moment was when I could see the difference between Bedford Falls run by and peopled with decent men and women and that same town in the hands of evil, godless people. “Welcome to Pottersville” is the “after” in a “before” (Bedford Falls) and “after” period of moral decline. We have left the Bedford Falls of my youth – and that was probably not all that innocent even then! – and are now full-time residents of Pottersville, and it’s not a pretty picture at all. Neither do I believe it is possible for us to undo what has been done. Why? Because the people in Pottersville were the same people that had lived in Bedford Falls with the exception of George Bailey, but they had succumbed to Potter and those who served him. We see a hint of this at one point in the movie after George’s father dies. George wants to go away. He’s bored with Bedford Falls and the Building and Loan and has accumulated a little money to go on his adventures but the board members tell him that they want him to lead his father’s company. George says no, that his Uncle Billy should do it. But they know Uncle Billy isn’t able and they tell George that if he doesn’t stay, the board will “vote with Potter” who will close the Building and Loan down as he had been trying to do for years! And so George stays. In other words, the moral decay was always there, but George’s presence prevented Potter from turning Bedford Falls into Pottersville.
Alas, no person or even group of people were there to stop our downward moral path from our “Bedford Falls” to our present “Pottersville.” Oh, there were good people from time to time but soon the whole milieu became too corrupt for any one person or group of people to influence the direction in which we were going. Even our churches became defenders of the indefensible whether it was abortion or sexual perversion or the Spirit of the Age. As I write this in the third decade of the 21st century I realize that all our signposts now say “Welcome to Pottersville” but, alas, there is no George Bailey or Clarence to return this world to a time of wholesomeness and decency. We are condemned to reside where evil has triumphed and it’s our own damned fault.