Conformity, Greatness, Mediocrity and George Bailey
In college I had a roommate who facetiously claimed that the Frank Capra Christmastime classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, had been commissioned by the U.S. Government as a way to dampen expectations of the post-war population. Soldiers returning from the war wanted not just a piece of the American Dream, they wanted to achieve, to aspire, to conquer life the way they had conquered death on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific islands. In short, they wanted it all. The Feds, fearful of a potential uprising of unsatisfied citizens, hoped to quell their desire, and what better way to do so than to make a movie about a man with big dreams who by the film’s end learns life’s most valuable lesson: that no man is a failure who has friends? A wonderful theory, and one that made the twenty-something me laugh and take note, as I sure as hell wasn’t going to settle for the simple life. No fricking way.
Fast forward just a short decade or so, and I was an at-home dad taking care of twin daughters in a three-bedroom ranch in suburban Pennsylvania. So much for conquering the world, though there were days – say, on a sunny weekday when my kids and I successfully tackled a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo with no spousal lifeboat – that I did indeed feel like The King Of The World.
Government conspiracy or not, the idea of conformity did seem to take hold in post-war United States, so much so that author Richard Yates devoted his 1961 debut novel Revolutionary Road to the concept. In a 1972 interview, Yates says of his novel: “During the fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price…” He also says his book is about “…a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams.”
George Bailey, right?
Not so fast.
As I was reading the book last month, I noticed that Yates’s protagonists, Frank and April Wheeler, were living out the second part of a life cycle that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes in his novel, Deadeye Dick:
“If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is…I suppose that’s really what so many American women are complaining about these days: They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.”
Overburdened with epilogue. The unhappiness of Yates’s characters really had nothing to do with marriage, suburbia, careers or lack thereof, hobbies, home projects or friends. The Wheelers were going to be miserable whatever their life circumstances. Their stories were over, and they were living out their epilogues. They experienced no joy from their children. They didn’t do interesting things on the weekends. They didn’t enjoy the company of others. They did nothing to help people. They were largely sleeping walking through life.
George Bailey lived a life that – while perhaps not the one he’d envisioned as a youth – was quite rich in comparison, though one could argue that this conclusion is the result of rationalizing. He didn’t achieve greatness, and therefore had no choice but to find solace in mediocrity. But are those the only alternatives? Is the alternative to greatness – to achieving one’s dreams at any cost – mere mediocrity? Is George Bailey anything special in the end? John Steinbeck might not think so. In his novel East of Eden, the character Sam Hamilton says, “When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name – but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease…I’m glad I chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other?”
How, indeed. In the current movie, La La Land, the final segment offers a glimpse into alternative lives for the two leads had they chosen difference courses, and I suppose we all play out these parallel universes in our imaginations from time to time and wonder what would have been like had we taken a different turn, said yes instead of no or vice versa, or taken a risk we weren’t prepared to take. But does mean that the life we live – perhaps a rather common life – is mediocre?
I argue that it might be, but it definitely needn’t be.
More on this point next week.