Around this time of year many people settle in for a familiar ritual. They make a cup of hot chocolate, grab a blanket, quarrel over the comfy chair and settle in to watch a Christmas movie. Among the many options available, perhaps the most iconic is the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. What is it about this now 75 year old film that keeps drawing people back? Few would argue that the film is a technical marvel, making no new advances in the realm of practical effects, camera work, or editing; the acting, though charming to some, is admittedly hammy at times, but still we find ourselves drawn to it. I believe we often turn to media to learn something about ourselves, and I would argue that this is exactly the case with this film. The title promises a "wonderful" life something everyone desires, but of what does this wonderful life consist? Fortunately I need not do a lengthy in depth scene by scene analysis to answer this, for the director makes sure his ultimate message is entirely plain by spelling it out in black and white. In the emotional closing scene of the film, the camera focuses on a note left for our main character by his guardian angel. It reads simply:
Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.
This seems on the face of it, a very bold claim. With so many seemingly all important things vying for our attention, what time is there for friendship? How important could it be, that it is presented as not a temporary distraction or a way to pass time, but rather man's raison d'être. How is it that a man who lacks everything save friendship be seen to not be a failure?
Before we go any further let us first define terms. What is a friend? The classical answer to this question is provided by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics where he states rather concisely (depending upon the translation) "A friend is another self." Though less catchy, this idea is perhaps better explained as a friend being one in whom a man can see himself, much like a mirror. This is not to say friendship consists of having all the same attributes, or likes or dislikes, or that the friends must be involved in the same activities, though these things may be the basis of a relationship and may indeed be where true friendship begins, but rather a true friend sees in the other the same moral quality as in himself. We become like those with whom we associate, and it is through our friends that we see ourselves. Oftentimes those closest to us have a better idea of who we are than what we see ourselves.
Friendship is based on a common goal and an interest in aiding the other in the pursuit of his end. This goal is goodness or happiness, and its pursuit is through the acquisition and practice of virtue. A true friend is one that desires the good of the other person. Friends share a bond of charity that impels each to rejoice in the success of the other, to weep in his sorrow, and to challenge him in his faults. By this care for the other person, friends live in communion or harmony with each other and find themselves better off than they were alone.
Now that we know what friends are, why are they so important? Man was made for and finds joy in true communion with others. This foundational truth is found throughout history and across cultures, and indeed at the beginning of Genesis God says "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). Man is meant to be in relationship with others, and with his God. This truth known to the secular world is clarified and intensified in Christ. At the heart of the Christian life is friendship, to be a Christian is to be a friend of God. Indeed Our Lord honored his apostles saying to them at the Last Supper before He suffered for them saying, "I have called you friends" (John 15:15).
As we develop our relationship with Him as in all friendships, we become more like Him. Our wills become conformed to His, our desire turns to the life He desires for us. Friendship is transformed from a means, to an end in itself. We are encouraged along the way by the other friends of Jesus, living here among us; by those we have been blessed to call true friends and with whom we have developed intimate caring relationships. We are also spurred on by those who have gone before, the saints who live with Christ, interceding before Him on our behalf and longing for us to join them in the blessed life that is to come.
In the end, everything temporal will pass away. Wealth, success, and pursuit of pleasure will be of no avail. Indeed friendship here on earth surpasses other joys because it precures from this life to the next where we will walk as saints among the saints in communion with each other and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, thankful that we were blessed with such friends.