Christmas at the Fool

It's a Wonderful Life

by David Wolpe (TMF DBunk)

It's the holiday season.

Once again many of us will find ourselves staring misty-eyed at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed as they discover the value of life on this earth. This year, for a change, let us not view It's a Wonderful Life through the usual veil of sweet and salty tears, but instead as an answer to the question that's on the lips of moviegoers worldwide: "How is the film like the Motley Fool?"

How indeed? Let us count the ways.

We live in an age in which the message on all sides is that we are replaceable. If we lose our job, the company won't fold: it will hire someone else. If we hadn't married our spouses, someone else would have. If we hadn't bought this house, or rented this apartment, or bought this car or this snow shovel, someone else would have.

There are precious few places left where this is not true. The wonder of It's a Wonderful Life is that it says life on earth is sacred and magical and unique, even with all its attendant problems and frustrations. You make a difference. You are unique. The beauty of life is in front you, and if you open your eyes to it, you can see the wonderful impact you have on those around you. You can feel gratitude for what you have.

Now, while we cannot yet claim the lasting status of an endearing and enduring classic (we've only been here since 1994, after all) here at the Fool, we flatter ourselves to think that we share some of the values of the film, and it is toward that longevity that we happily aspire. To wit:

George Bailey is a decent man, a man who goes against the financial establishment. He's a man of independent thought and energy, and he won't compromise his values. He, who we might be so bold as to call a Fool, discovers the value of life.

But the going isn't easy. When he loses $8,000, he becomes so desperate to find it that he goes to the office of Mr. Potter -- the evil Financial Establishment incarnate -- to beg:

I see. I've suddenly become quite important. What kind of security would I have, George? Have you got any stocks?

GEORGE (shaking his head)
No, sir.

Bonds? Real estate? Collateral of any kind?

GEORGE (pulls out policy)
I have some life insurance, a $15,000 policy.

Yes... How much is your equity in it?

Five hundred dollars.

Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities -- no stocks -- no bonds -- nothing but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive!

Sound familiar? (Not the part about being worth more dead than alive -- the part about being cocky.)

George, desperate, is at the end of his rope. He thinks himself a failure and wants to end it all. He goes to the bridge to jump, but instead is saved by his guardian angel, Clarence. And this leads to the famous sequence in which the filmmaker asks: "What would life be like if George Bailey -- or I, or you, Fool -- had never been born? Whose lives that we've touched would be that much emptier by our absence?"

Clarence the angel takes him through the town he thinks he knows, but which is so changed for the lack of George Bailey. In the bar they come across the town drunk-- the druggist, Mr. Gower, who spent 20 years in jail for poisoning a kid. Clarence and George are cast out of the bar and find themselves lying in the snow. George is confused.

Don't you understand, George? It's because you were not born.

Then if I wasn't born, who am I?

You're nobody. You have no identity.

George rapidly searches his pockets for identification, but without success.

The astute filmgoer will find hints in the psyche of the filmmakers that anticipate the Fool connection. When George runs his car into a tree, the owner of the tree yells at him --

Hey, you... Hey, you! Come back here, you drunken Fool! Get this car out of here!

Coincidence? We think not!

George takes in the horror of his undone life: the mother who didn't have him and whose brother is in the insane asylum; Bailey Park, which is a cemetery instead of a development because George Bailey wasn't around to build the houses; his uninhabited house (with no family to live in it); his wife Mary who never married because George wasn't there to marry; his brother Harry who died at the age of 9 because George wasn't there to pull him out of the ice pond�

What does it add up to? It says that you count, that you can make a difference, that you are more important than the giant institutions that hold more assets than you do. And that, after all, is the nature of Foolishness, is it not? You count. You can make your own decisions, you have the power within you to chart your own investing path, you need not be bamboozled by gargantuan, lumbering monoliths that tell you that you're too small to make a difference, or too ignorant.

We remember too that the point of investing is not to stare at computer screens all day, feeling your systoles and diastoles flutter hither and yon in head-pounding opposition, as your stocks flutter like a butterfly (or, even worse, just lie there like a lox) while you wonder if you should have sold 15 minutes ago. This would be a Potterish obsession with money. The Fool suggests that you invest for the long haul. We're in it to teach you about things that last: lasting principles as well as assets that you hand down to your heirs and they to theirs.

After all, if George had, over the course of time, been invested in the stock market, he'd not have needed Mr. Potter and all Potter's dirty money. He'd have been self-sufficient. Of course, we'd have been deprived of an American movie classic, so maybe all's well that ends well.

As George and Clarence sit in a bar together, a cash register bell rings off-screen. Clarence reacts to the sound of the bell.

Oh-oh. Somebody's just made it.

Made what?

Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings.

So, Fools, wherever we may be: let's be grateful for what we have and the love we are permitted to show, and let's express a little more of it, if we can. We can even be grateful for bull markets and fine stocks, for well-run companies and the ingenuity that drives them, for new technologies and the human capacity for invention. Whether by sharing something with someone we love, by making amends to someone we've hurt, or by giving a little more than we otherwise would have.

And if that weren't enough, what is it that saves George Bailey, in the end? Why, it's the heart and soul of his town -- the people in it, who rush forward to help him in his time of need. And that, Fools, is nothing more nor less than community -- the heart and soul of Fooldom itself.

So remember, this holiday season... whenever you hear a bell ring, it may be that an angel is getting its wings. It may also be that a new Fool has joined the fold.


Happy Holidays to one and all!

Next -- John Tesh Recites a Christmas Poem