What It’s a Wonderful Life Can Teach Us About Travel

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Creative Commons License photo credit: willsenior

One of the side effects of writing this blog is that I’m constantly in the traveler mindset. I notice a lot of things that I’ve never picked up on before. I must have seen It’s a Wonderful Life a thousand times, but it never resonated with me quite the way as it did this past Christmas Eve.

This time around I was repeatedly struck by George Bailey’s ongoing and frequently thwarted dreams of traveling the world (If you need a refresher on the movie’s plot, click here). George fantasizes about South America, Europe and the Caribbean. He collects National Geographic’s and loves trains, planes and automobiles. If you are reading this, you can probably relate.

George doesn’t get to realize his dream. Circumstances repeatedly interrupt his attempts to make it out of the little town of Bedford Falls.  Family, business issues and the Great Depression delay him. Time and time again George is forced to put off his dreams until he gives up on them completely.

George is constantly putting others before himself and works selflessly to benefit his family and his community. This is incredibly admirable, and I could never argue otherwise.  I could however; point out that he tries to throw himself off a bridge. After thirty plus years of ignoring his own needs and dreams he completely snaps.

I get the impression that there are a lot of people out there leading lives of quiet desperation. When we put our all into a lifestyle that we don’t want or love, the results are never idyllic. George loves his family, but he clearly resents them because he is so unhappy. He doesn’t value his life or his achievements, going as far as to wish he’d never been born. Obviously this is extreme but I think it does illustrate the hollowness of achievements when you aren’t passionate.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Skelekitten

I think that a lot of times in life, we feel as if we don’t have choices or can’t follow the road we’d like. We feel the need to please
others, or are trapped by our responsibilities- to our job, our family or our self.  Sometimes things happen that are out of our control and we have to readjust our plans.

What we can control is our responses to these hurdles. I’m not saying we should abandon our responsibilities, but I think we owe it to ourselves not to make them into excuses.  There will always be reasons NOT to do something, reasons not to travel. The triumph is in finding the solutions and workarounds to do it anyways. People travel with their children, they travel with disabilities, and they travel with little or no money. When the will is strong enough, the rest falls into place.

At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George learns that life is indeed worthwhile. That being alive at all is a gift in and of itself. The message I take away is that we get one shot at life, and that we absolutely must make the most of that chance.

17 thoughts on “What It’s a Wonderful Life Can Teach Us About Travel”

  1. Hi! I just stumbled across this blog, and I must say, this post is just spot-on. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t been able to see “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and it’s always struck a chord in me – but it was always the “no man is a failure who has friends” that I held onto. The message about travel and keeping one’s dreams alive never crossed my mind, and once you think about it, it’s quite obvious! Thank you =)

  2. Great post Steph! Timely, reflective words. I haven´t seen the movie in years, but this makes me want to go watch it. Many people do live lives of quiet desperation, but they don´t have to. Perfect end of the year post.
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..End of the Year at the End of the World =-.

    1. Thanks Nancy! I had a brainstorm while watching on X-mas even and thought “crap, can i get this out before new years?” Appreciate the kind words!

  3. I’m with Candice and have never seen the movie and even more so never heard of it (you have to let me off I grew up in a tiny country Australian town). In saying that I like the message you took from it and will be looking it up for a watch now.

    1. I’m getting the feeling that the love affair with this movie is very much an American thing. You should definitely see it! It makes me cry every time.

  4. I admit, I haven’t seen this movie since I was kid; so many TV shows and made-for-TV movies have riffed on it over the years (badly) that I just can’t stand it any more. While I believe Steve is correct about the intended message of the movie, I agree with you that there is definitely a different way to view the text than the intended one. That’s the beauty of stories in all forms; each person views the text from their own particular lens on life. Two people can derive very different meanings from the same text.

    Have you seen UP? It’s got a great travel theme. Not subtle, but a fun movie for travel fans.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..Christmas in Burlington, Vermont =-.

  5. We watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year at Christmas Eve, cuddled in with our dogs, with a yummy chocolate dessert. It is Patrick’s and my favorite Christmas tradition and every year I cry at the end and get something a little different about the movie. It is one of my all time favorite movies and I can quote nearly the entire movie by heart.

    This year, I got something totally different from the movie because of our experiences traveling long term. Like George, I always have that ache and itch to go abroad. But, when I am home with my dogs and my husband, I am so happy being at home. What makes life wonderful is finding the richness that life brings in all its many facets, as George found, and the ability to make friends wherever we are. And, so I didn’t come away from the movie thinking that we should make the most out of this one shot but rather that we should be happy with all of the gifts that life gives us in whatever form they are – whether traveling or being at home. Interesting isn’t it how multilayered this movie is?

    1. I think that’s the mark of a truly great movie or book, you can experience it again and again and get new things out of it.

  6. Thanks for writing this interesting post on one of the greatest films of all time. I haven’t seen ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ in ages, but the next time I watch it, I’m going to be on the lookout for this hidden message of ‘get out there and travel’!

  7. Interesting post about one of the all-time great movies. Another way of looking at it is that George learns that everything he needs is right at home. And I bet when the movie came out, I lot of people agreed with that sentiment too. It came out right after everyone was returning home from WWII.

    But your post and the movie touches on an age-old dilemma: (1) plan for the future by building a life at home to obtain things like job and economic security, a family etc. or (2) live for today by seeing the world and traveling. Plenty of people do both.

    It seems like at least some regrets are in store for those who go too far down either path. Putting off your dreams for too long often means forfeiting them. Living for today for too long can mean facing some bleak tomorrows.

    The trick seems to be finding the right balance.

    Whatever path you take, by all means avoid inadvertently giving all of your town’s money to a ruthless capitalist. (Especially, if this happens while you’re poking fun at him at the bank).

    1. Very good point, I think that the movie did intend to point out the values of hard work, dedication and service to the community. In the 1940’s those would have been very important sentiments.

      However as a former English major I tend to make a hobby out of finding unintended messages and meanings :). I think that in the light of modern times, and particularly coming from a more free-spirited, traveling background, the movie can be seen as a cautionary tale.

      I definitely agree with you on the importance of balance. Throwing yourself into running a failing savings and loan is no road to happiness, but neither is ditching your family and all your responsabilities.

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