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Learning from a Christmas Classic

What’s your favorite Christmas movie? I for one find it hard to decide. I delight in A Christmas Story, and could never forget the warning oft repeated to Ralphie, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” There’s so much to appreciate in the hilarity and sickly sweetness of Will Ferrell as Elf. And who could forget A Charlie Brown Christmas, which charms us with its warmth, meaning, and critique of consumerism?!

But my favorite Christmas film of all time has to be It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. I spent my junior high years soaking in that ageless classic every Christmas and have ever since had a soft spot in my heart for George Bailey, the movie’s protagonist. What’s not to love about the character, played so memorably by James Stewart?! From his heroism as a child and teenager to his work for the common man in Bedford Falls, it’s only natural that we would have affinity for George Bailey–and no wonder that we feel for him when life starts to fall apart on Christmas Eve. This is an incredibly nice guy–a giver–and we watch in hope that a life lived putting others first actually ends well.

Part of the reason why It’s a Wonderful Life resonates so deeply with us is that in our heart of hearts, we want to believe that life ends well for givers. But we have this gnawing fear that nice guys actually finish last.

There’s strong evidence, however, that givers actually do finish first. In Give and Take, Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant challenges conventional wisdom about success and demonstrates that over time those who consistently give actually make it to the top of the success ladder. In the short run, those who are primarily looking out for themselves–who Grant describes as “takers” may get to the top faster.

But, over time, as people take stock of those around them, they recognize who the givers and takers are, and reciprocate to givers and root against takers.

The takers experience scarcity as a result of the bridges they burn over the years, while givers receive back the good they have given others.

This is not unlike the way It’s a Wonderful Life ends. Upon returning home after his encounter with Clarence the angel, George Bailey discovers that the many friends he had made by giving had more than covered the financial shortfall at his building and loan. Our final image is of the wearied but standing father, husband, and friend, rejoicing in all he has. As Give and Take so poignantly teaches us, givers really do succeed in the end.

Written by Dr. Drake Levasheff

Drake Levasheff, PhD, Senior Director, Murrieta Regional Campus Azusa Pacific University.

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