Why do people think their lives have meaning? That’s a Gordian Knot, but here’s a strand we can pull out. They think something along the lines of “my life has a lot of suffering in it, but just imagine all that would never have been for other people had I never been born.” It’s an appeal to an implied (though imagined) counterfactual — the world would have been a worse place without me. It’s an easy belief to have if you are religious — you may think that you are carrying out your own itty-bitty piece of God’s plan for the world which is all for the best — but it also seems pretty common among non-believers as well, even among people who imagine themselves to be atheists. I call this the Wonderful Life Illusion.
It’s a Wonderful Movie
I get the name “Wonderful Life Illusion” from a 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life that was produced and directed by Frank Capra and starred Jimmy Stewart. Although not a Christmas movie in any strict sense, people in the United States tend to think of it as one since it’s always broadcast at that time of year. There’s a useful if somewhat lengthy summary in Wikipedia (accessed 15 November 2014):
In Bedford Falls, New York, on Christmas Eve, George Bailey is deeply troubled and suicidal. Prayers for his well-being from friends and family reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to visit Earth to save George, thereby earning his wings. God the Father and St. Joseph review George’s life with Clarence.
As a 12-year-old boy in 1919, George saved the life of his younger brother Harry, who had fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, and because of his heroic action, George lost the hearing in his left ear. Later, while working in the local pharmacy, George noticed that the druggist, Mr. Gower, despondent over receiving a telegram that his son had died in the war, had mistakenly filled a child’s prescription with poison; George stopped Gower and saved him from killing the child and irrevocably ruining his own life.
George grows up and dreams of travelling the world. In 1928, he waits for Harry to graduate from high school and replace him at the Bailey Building and Loan Association, vital to the townspeople. On Harry’s graduation night, George, now 21 and preparing to travel before attending college, discusses his future with Mary Hatch, who has long had a crush on him. Later that evening, George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy interrupts them to tell George that his father has had a stroke, which proves fatal.
George gives up his summer travel plans to stay in Bedford Falls and sort out the firm’s affairs, and a few months later, Mr. Henry F. Potter, a rapacious slumlord and a member of the Building and Loan Association board, tries to persuade the board of directors to dissolve the Building and Loan. His main objection is to their providing home loans for the working poor. George talks them into rejecting Potter’s proposal, but they agree only on condition that George run the Building and Loan. Giving his college money to Harry, George delays his plans with the understanding that his younger brother, Harry, will take over upon graduation.
When Harry graduates from college, he unexpectedly brings home a wife, whose father has offered Harry an excellent job. Although Harry vows to decline the offer out of respect for his brother, George cannot deny Harry such a fine opportunity and decides to keep running the Building and Loan, knowing that this will kill his dream to travel the world.
George calls on Mary, who has recently returned home from college. After several arguments, they reveal their love for each other, and marry soon after. As they depart for their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank that leaves the Building and Loan in danger of collapse. The couple quell the panic by using the $2,000 set aside for their honeymoon to satisfy the depositors’ immediate needs. Mary enlists the help of George’s two best friends, Bert, a policeman, and Ernie, a cab driver, to create a faux tropical setting for a substitute honeymoon. The newlywed couple embrace while Bert and Ernie sing in the background.
George never manages to leave Bedford Falls, but does start Bailey Park, an affordable housing project. With his own interests compromised, Potter tries to hire him away, offering him a $20,000 salary, along with the promise of business trips to Europe, something that George always wanted to do. George, initially tempted, turns Potter down after realizing that Potter intends to close down the Building and Loan and take full control of Bedford Falls. He and Mary then raise four children: Pete, Janie, Tommy and Zuzu.
When World War II erupts, George is unable to enlist, because of his bad ear. Harry becomes a Navy fighter pilot and shoots down 15 enemy planes, two of which were targeting a ship full of troops in the Pacific. For his bravery, Harry is awarded the Medal of Honor.
On Christmas Eve morning, as the town prepares a hero’s welcome for Harry, Uncle Billy is on his way to Potter’s bank to deposit $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s cash funds. He greets Potter (who has the newspaper reporting Harry’s heroics) and taunts him by reading the headlines aloud. Potter angrily snatches the paper, but Billy inattentively allows the money to be snatched with it. Potter opens the paper, notices the money and keeps it, knowing that misplacement of bank money would result in bankruptcy for the Building and Loan and criminal charges for George. Uncle Billy can’t remember what happened to the money, and with a bank examiner present, he and George frantically search the town which turns up nothing. George is devastated that he is apparently destined to face scandal and jail and takes his anger and frustrations out on his family.
A desperate George appeals to Potter for a loan. Potter sarcastically turns George down, and then swears out a warrant for his arrest for bank fraud. George, now completely depressed, gets drunk at the bar owned by his friend, Giuseppe Martini, where he silently prays for help. After crashing his car into a tree, George staggers to a bridge, intending to commit suicide, feeling he is “worth more dead than alive” because of a life insurance policy. Before he can leap, Clarence jumps in first and pretends to be drowning. After George rescues him, Clarence reveals himself to be George’s guardian angel.
The counterfactuals roll out in response to George’s understandably skeptical response to the whole guardian angel thing.
George does not believe him and bitterly wishes he had never been born. Inspired by this comment, Clarence shows George what the town would have been like without him. In this alternate scenario, Bedford Falls is instead named Pottersville, and is home to sleazy nightclubs, pawn shops, and immoral people. Bailey Park has never been built, and remains an old cemetery. George notices that he can now hear in his left ear, that his lip is not bleeding, his clothes are dry and that he does not have Zuzu’s flower petals, as he never existed in the alternate reality.
Mr. Gower was sent to prison for poisoning the child and is despised and homeless. Martini does not own the bar. Martini’s bartender Nick owns the bar, and runs it in a more reckless manner. George’s friend Violet Bick is a taxi-dancer and is being arrested as George passes the location of the Building and Loan, now the location of the dance hall where Violet works. Ernie is helplessly poor, with his family having forsaken him. Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for many years since he lost his brother and the family business. Harry is dead as a result of George not being there to save him from drowning, and the servicemen he would have saved also died. George’s mother is a bitter widow, and Mary is a shy, single spinster librarian.
Clarence then explains how George single-handedly prevented this dire fate. He, and he alone, kept Potter in check, preventing the town from descending into squalor and vice.
George runs back to the bridge and begs to be allowed to live again. His prayer is answered, and he runs home joyously, where the authorities are waiting to arrest him. Mary, Uncle Billy, and a flood of townspeople arrive with more than enough donations to save George and the Building and Loan. George’s friend Sam Wainwright sends him a $25,000 line of credit by telegram.
Harry also arrives to support his brother, and toasts George as “the richest man in town”. In the pile of donated funds, George finds a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer inscribed, “Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. P.S. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence.” A bell on the Christmas tree rings, and his daughter, Zuzu, remembers aloud that it means an angel has just earned his wings. George realizes that he truly has a wonderful life.
In spite of the high reputation It’s a Wonderful Life enjoys, it’s hard for anyone with a skeptical eye not to see a great deal here that’s cheap and manipulative. The movie embodies many of the characteristic vices of popular fiction in that it uses the hero’s inspiriting story to write off the stories of others who are props therein. Did Mr. Gower’s son, the one shipped off to be used as cannon fodder in the First World War, have such a wonderful life? How about pilots of those 15 planes blown apart by Hero Harry in the Pacific? Somewhere back in Japan there are grieving parents and perhaps little boys and girls who will grow up as orphans (or not grow up at all, think Grave of the Fireflies). But I guess those people don’t even register as human, much less sympathetic, to an audience of 1946 Americans. Or perhaps even to audience of 2014 Americans.
The deus ex machina ending, with the townfolk taking up a collection to save George’s businss, also strains credibility, to say nothing of one’s digestion.
More interesting from a philosophical perspective are perhaps questions about how much we can really believe in the counterfactuals, those fulcrums of meaning, out of which the story was built. Suppose there were a world in which George Bailey were never born. Would there even have been a Harry to fall through the ice? The conception of Harry, after all, is a highly contingent event, the fusion of unique gametes at a specific time. With no little George toddling around the house, perhaps — indeed, almost certainly — Harry’s parents would have conceived a different child altogether. Or if George had never existed, Mr. Gower would have hired a different boy to help out around the drugstore, with whom he would have had a different line of causal interactions. How likely would it have been that these would have led to the same conjuncture of fatal telegram arriving at the moment of filling a prescription? We can replicate similar skepticism for pretty much ever event in George’s life. If there had never been a George to fall for, Mary might have fallen for someone else in college. No lonely spinsterhood for her, then. And so on.
Every life is filled with events for which there are counterfactuals. We would like to imagine that our role in these counterfactuals is the “good” one. But is it really? Here is a sketch of a story set in one possible world, World Alef.
Alan sits at the bar in Hal’s, which is a beautiful bar with decent but none-too-showy restaurant attached. Alan is an associate at a big-city law firm. He has been lonely for some time, indeed, starving for a relationship. He’s at Hal’s because recently he’s met someone online. Ellen is a computer programmer whose workplace is one block from Hal’s. She has also been loney for some time. Alan and Ellen have been exchanging e-mail for some time and things look promising, so they agree to meet each other in person for the first time. Alan picks Hal’s as the place, and they agree to meet at the bar at 7.
Now it’s 7:30, and there’s no Ellen. Hal has just tried to reach her at her office and on her cell phone and has had his call go to voicemail both times.
A Stranger sitting at the bar near Alan asks “Waiting for someone?”
“Yes,” says Alan.
“She stood you up, didn’t she?”
Alan takes a sip from his glass of white wine. He wears a thoughtful expression. “Lots of things can happen. I’m going to wait another ten minutes.”
At 7:39 Ellen meets Alan at the bar. She’s a bit flustered. She had a meeting that went late at work. No matter — Alan handles it graciously, and there are still tables available. They have dinner. The date goes well. It’s followed by others. Alan and Ellen take their respective online profiles down. They go to the opera. They do on vacation together. In two years they get married and move together to the suburbs. Alan works hard at his corporate law job and makes partner. They have children.
Happy ending, right? Well, maybe. Alan doesn’t really like the suburbs and he doesn’t like being a lawyer. But he feels an obligation to support his family and basically Alan’s a pretty loyal guy. The stress and fatigue of his job and his commute mean that Alan doesn’t really get that much out of parenthood. Ellen senses Alan’s weary unhappiness and this echoes, so it’s not all that happy a marriage, even if it does last the rest of their lives. The kids grow up. Alan drinks too much, becomes overweight, and keels over from a heart attack at 60. As the darkness closes in, he thinks “Well, at least I succeeded in my career and provided for my family. My life had meaning.”
Here is a different story, set in a different, but closely related world that diverges from World Alef sometime around 7:30 in the evening one crucial night.
“She stood you up, didn’t she” asks the Stranger, not unkindly.
Alan looked down at his glass of white wine glumly. “I’m afraid so,” he says. This has happened before. He’s beginning to wonder if he’s going to be alone forever. Alan signals for the barman for his tab. He pays and leaves a generous tip, swallows the rest of his glass at one go and leaves. Better get some sleep. A big deal is coming in from a client tomorrow.
At 7:39 Ellen enters Hal’s and sees no one who looks like Alan’s online picture. She sighs wearily and wonders if she’s going to be forever alone.
Alan and Ellen stop contacting each other online. But that’s not the end of either of their stories. A few months later Alan meets Karin. Karin is an artist, a bohemian free spirit and, it must be said, a truly imaginative lover. Alan is smitten. He and Karin start seeing each other. Alan quits his job and gets a position teaching philosophy at a community college in the next city over. He doesn’t make much money, but he likes teaching and over the course of his life writes a few well-regarded academic papers as well. He and Karin never marry and never produce children, but for the next decades they see each other approximately every other weekend and one or other of their respective urban apartments and have a wild time together.
And it’s not the end of Ellen’s story, either. A few months later she meets Brian, another computer programmer. They hit it off and eventually marry. They don’t make as much money as Alan would have in world Alef, but Brian works from home and turns out to be a devoted father to children other than those Ellen would have had with Alan. It’s a happy marriage, at least relative to that which Alan and Ellen would have had in World Alef.
Alan’s life comes to an end at 60 from a heart attack precipitated by a round of wild sex with Karin. As the darkness closes in he thinks nothing at all, he just slips away with a smile on his lips.
In a variant on Word Bet, World Gimel, Alan is never born at all, so Karin will have to find a different playmate and Hal’s another customer. No matter — they’re both good at that. As in World Bet, Ellen and Brian find each other and live mostly happily ever after.
Counterfactuals and Life
There’s a detail about World Alef which I didn’t add, which is about Brian’s fate therein. You see, Brian really was a pretty shy and socially awkward guy and even lonelier than Alan. In World Alef Brian never met anyone. He fell into a funk, spiraled downward, declined, and died of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver at 35. Needless to say, neither of Alan nor Ellen knew this fact, or even knew of Brian’s existence in World Alef.
We’d like to imagine that the world without us would be a worse place. That if we had never been born that our parents would have lived out their lives unfulfilled, that the people we married would age and die as old lonely bachelors or spinsters, that the children we would never have would somehow regret their nonexistence. But most of this is nonsense. Our parents would have had other children, or would have had no children but would have found other things to do with their lives. Our spouses would (almost certainly) have found other people to be with. The children we never have are not little ghosts, sadly peering through the metaphysical ether with their big, tear-filled eyes at the bright warm existence that will never be theirs. They’re just not anything at all, left forever in the blessed calm of nonexistence. The world might have been just as well without us.
Indeed, it might even have been better without us. How many Brians are there as a result of our simply living our lives? We don’t know, but there could certainly be many. Brian-like figures tend, by their very nature, to be invisible to us, though perhaps in some cases — for example, in the case of known disappointed suitors for the hands of people we have wooed and won, or alternative candidates for cherished positions that we have beaten out — we might be able to at least guess at the identities of some of them.
It is an arrogant folly to claim to know that the world is better with us than without us. Perhaps you believe it as a matter of faith. If so, tant pis pour toi. Faith is a vice.