A man wrote a short story that he could not get published. So he included it in 200 Christmas cards he sent out to friends and family.
One of the cards ended up in the hands of a film director. He made a film based on that story.
It lost a fortune and the director never made a successful film again. He ultimately had to sell his production company and with it the rights to the film.
The company and the rights were sold several more times. The eventual owner forgot to renew the copyright of the film.
Which meant that it was now free to anyone who wanted to air the film.
So PBS did.
And then other networks followed suit.
They aired it around Christmas because they needed cheap programming to compete with newer holiday specials.
The film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
The story behind how this classic came to be epitomizes its name and central message every bit as much as the better known plot of the film itself.
Small invisible acts by people known and unknown shape our lives. It reminds us to send more such acts into the world – without thought or expectation of any grand outcome.
Although, as this story shows, this doesn’t mean that something grand won’t eventually happen. And when it does and others learn the story behind the story, they too will feel all the more grateful and enriched. Perhaps inspiring more simple invisible acts to made.
Thank you to Phillip Van Doren Stern for sending his story, “The Greatest Gift” out into the world and into our hearts.
Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.
In the film First Reformed, a reverend and environmentalist are experiencing existential crises – each waging a battle between hope and despair. In one exchange, the environmentalist shares his conflicting feelings about being an expectant father yet having to answer for the catastrophic effects climate change will have on the earth his unborn daughter will inherit as an adult. He asks, “What will I say when she looks at me and asks – ‘You let this happen?’”
Reverend Tiller responds by describing the need to embrace both despair and hope in our lives. Suggesting without some despair there is no need for hope. While at the same time extolling us that too much despair blinds us from seeing any hope at all.
The effects of their exchanges are both thrilling and devastating.
This last week, as I attended multiple moving up ceremonies and parties for my children, I could not help but feel hopeful. Yet hours later sitting in front of a computer, I listened to the cries of children separated from their parents at the border, I similarly could not help but feel despair.
In almost every aspect of our lives, in ways big and small, we can see the ideas of hope and despair plotted along a continuum – we, in the middle. like a swinging pendulum swaying from one side to the next.
When we fall sick, we feel despair at what we are unable to do. When we begin to feel better, we are hopeful at what we can now accomplish.
When we fail at work, we feel despair at wasted effort and time. When a new project comes along we feel hopeful at what success it might bring.
When we have a fight with our partner, we feel despair at the pall it casts over our days. When we make up, life feels right again.
Within our personal lives, events will bring despair one moment and hope the next. Often, in these instances, there are things firmly within our control that can help us swing that balance.
In the larger world order, when we consider the state of our planet, our country, our politics, it becomes trickier. They feel beyond our control and we feel powerless.
Maintaining a healthy balance between hope and despair is difficult. A little of either spurs us to act, too much leads us to paralysis. In the case of despair, the belief our actions will do no good while too much hope can lead us to think the problems will take care of themselves.
In our daily lives, it is important to recognize the yin and yang of hope and despair and how we are feeding these two impulses.
How much time do you spend mired in the daily news of doom and gloom? How many conversations are you having with Eeyore friends?
Conversely, how much time are you spending with your head in the clouds? How many optimistic conversations do you have with the rainbows and unicorns set?
In the stirring conclusion of First Reformed, it offers that the middle ground between hope and despair is occupied by grace – the disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.
When in doubt, move the pendulum with an act of grace.
(In this spirit, here are a list of actions you can take if moved by by children separated at our borders.)
Two of the most beloved family movies of all-time focus on a banker named George.
I’ll give you a moment to see if you can guess either or both.
The first, George Banks, works for Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in London. His job is securing investments from customers whose money can help build “railways through Africa, dams across the Nile, fleets of ocean greyhounds, majestic, self-amortizing canals, plantations of ripening tea.” In other words, he gets people to invest their tuppence to expand capitalism, infrastructure, the British Empire and of course, their bank accounts. The price for George is the blind pursuit of these returns comes at the expense of time spent with his two young children.
The second George works at Bailey Building and Loan. It’s a small community bank that reinvests its deposits back into the residents of Bedford Falls in the form of local mortgages and small loans used to pursue their dream. The price for this George is that he has sacrificed his own larger dreams to be the financier of smaller ones. His margin for error is slim and when misfortunate strikes, he fears he will lose everything – his reputation, family, and business.
In both cases, it is only through the intervention of a fantastical do-gooder that they are able to gain perspective and find meaning in their lives. In one case, it is a nanny named Mary Poppins and in the other a guardian angel named Clarence.
These films, both over fifty years old, amazingly still reflect society’s uneasy and misguided relationship with money and financial institutions.
We all strive to have “enough” to feel secure and comfortable – except we never seem to feel secure or comfortable, regardless of what we have.
None of us will have the good fortune of a magical nanny or angel to show us that comfort and security are more readily found in our families and friends than in our bank accounts or portfolios.
It will be up to us to remind each other to “let’s go fly a kite” with our children or remember what “it’s a wonderful life” really entails.
Last week, Seth Godin wrote, “The difference between who you are now and who you were five years ago is largely due to how you’ve spent your time along the way.”
Serendipitously that same day, I watched, The Man Who Knew Infinity – a true story based on mathematicians trying to understand the world by discovering life’s underlying equations.
With Seth’s words in mind, this amateur mathematician tried to develop a simple equation to capture how we become who we are.
Here was a first stab: Being = Activity x Time
This could be quantified by looking at how many equivalent days were spent doing that activity over a five year period. The formula for which would be:
(Weekly Activity Hours x 260 weeks)/24
For example, if you practice guitar one hour each week, you will, over the course of those five years, spend the equivalent of 10 entire days playing the guitar. This could over time make you a better guitar player.
Now imagine, if instead, you spent three hours a week practicing. That would translate to an equivalent of an entire month doing nothing but playing the guitar! Think of how much better you would be.
Conversely, there is the time we spend becoming things we didn’t intend. For example, while I fancy myself a pretty avid reader, lately I’ve spent more time watching things on television than with my nose stuck in a book.
So let’s suppose, I watched ten hours of TV this week, an average of 1.5 a day.
(10 hours TV x 260)/24 = 108 Equivalent Days.
If I keep up the current pace, I will spend the equivalent of three and a half months of the next 5 years doing nothing but watching television.
It is said that we are what we do. Writers write. Teachers teach. Ballers ball. In this case, I’m not really a reader, I’m a TV watcher. Ouch.
I encourage you to do your own math using the formula above. Pick one thing you’re trying to be and see how your time stacks up. Now compare that to something you’re doing that really isn’t in line with who you want to be.
What does that look like five years from now? How does that make you feel?
Don’t be overwhelmed. It starts with choosing that first hour. Then as they say “rinse and repeat.”
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.”
These are the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A book often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, as it called into question not just the unchecked mass use of pesticides but man’s increasingly fractured relationship to nature.
Upon publication over 50 years ago, it sparked a public uprising, a well-orchestrated industry response replete with “alternative facts”, congressional hearings and eventually regulations that not only curbed the use of pesticides, but also laid the framework for all the environmental battles and progress that would follow.
Before Silent Spring, Carson was already a best selling author whose simple and beautiful prose created a sense of wonder about nature – specifically the ocean. Much like the opening lines of Silent Spring, she painted pictures of a world in which we wanted to live in harmony with all that was around us – thinking that we would protect that which we appreciated, understood and loved.
She chose her words carefully and while her message was alarming – she was by no means an alarmist. In fact, the passion and anger that burned deep within her was channeled into a warm illuminating light that added credibility and converts.
In her lifetime, her march was a slow and sometimes lonely one. Her legacy is the millions who have since picked up her baton.
The lessons of Carson’s life were unknown to me until I stumbled upon a PBS documentary last week.
Just days later, I found myself in my daughter’s classroom dissecting an owl’s pellet – essentially a giant fur ball they regurgitate after eating their prey.
We all went into this exercise with trepidation, children saying, “This is gross”, we parents thinking the exact same thing.
But as I watched these 9 year-olds delicately extract the bones from matted fur and proudly catalogue their discoveries, it was hard not to notice the look of awe and wonder in their faces and the unbridled amazement in their voices.
This was education – a moment that connects them to the world around them. Perhaps for one or two, this would be their first step in a long march. One that started with fear and unease, but now grows with respect and love.
We are all marching in our own way. Every step measured by what we buy, how we spend our time, or how we talk to each other. Is this march for something or against someone? Are we burning things down or shining light for others to see? And will our children or those that follow pick up our baton because we have marched well?