Is It A Wonderful Life? Why we make New Year resolutions

What is it about a New Year that compels us toward new beginnings and resolutions with born again fervour?  Why not birthdays which are personal New Years or Sundays, the start of a new week offering the opportunity to start over, fresh, fifty-two times a year.

Maybe because New Years are part of the cosmos, or at least the winter solstice of the northern hemisphere, promising new beginnings, which is hard wired into our collective unconscious.

Perhaps another reason to bind ourselves with resolutions to start over, or renew old pledges in January, is that in our current fractured world, none of us feel as if we have arrived.  We’re always searching but not finding what we’re looking for.  Nothing, it seems, will satisfy us but the utopian whiff of success, the promise of a fulfilled life.  

There is something that draws us to new begginings, a departing of our old life with the hope of arriving at a better place. And making resolutions to recommit to a discarded project or making a commitment to a new self improvement is a way of keeping faith with hope.  Hope for a better future.  Hope for a better self.  And if ever we needed hope, now is the time.

Few of us have reached that part of life where we feel we have arrived.  Whatever arriving might mean or feel like.  Yet we seem certain of one thing.  That point of arrival exists somewhere even though it will be different for each one of us.  Success is as variegated as the number of souls orbiting the sun.  Or so we believe.

This idea of arrival to achieve success implies a departure.  For surely, if we are to arrive somewhere we must first of all depart from somewhere else.  This is the quintessential human quest for meaning expressed in Homer’s Odyssey, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the great American novel (which we don’t hear of as much now as we’ve been told the art form’s dead or dying anyway).  

The quest starts with the protagonist leaving their home to find adventure and life somewhere else, somewhere more exciting where the action is.  The same narrative plot plays out in movies, plays, TV shows, novels and computer games.

In Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger, Texan stud, Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, throws the towel in on his dishwashing gig and arrives in New York City to become a gigolo at which he spectacularly fails.  He is ripped off by a con man, Ratso, played by Dustin Hoffman, who he later befriends and at the end of the movie tries to rescue by escaping from the city for Florida at Ratso’s insistence – another departure for a more hopeful destiny.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ most celebrated play, opens with Blanche DuBoise arriving at her sister Stella’s apartment in New Orleans having departed her small town in Mississippi.  It is of no small consequence that Blanche arrives by way of a streetcar name Desire which was an actual rail line in New Orleans.  Neither is it by chance that the essay by Williams on the artist’s role in society is titled, “A Streetcar Named Success.”

These twentieth century heroic tropes had already been subverted by the fading of modernism’s  faith in  happy endings.  Life was somewhere else but never where we thought at the end of the rainbow where our pot of gold beckons.  We’ve all had our hearts broken and like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we’ve snuck in behind the curtain of our life, shocked to find the wizard’s promises have all been a hoax.  

But Dorothy came back to a deeper truth which like Ulysses brought her all the way back home to Kansas where she had begun.  Joe Buck and Blanche DuBoise tell us different stories.  They arrived, but not at the illusive happy ending.  We are not told if they find meaning back home or somewhere else.  And so we arrive at the post mortem of modernity where we are forced to decide the story’s meaning for ourself.

My last blog at the start of Advent was on Ted Lasso’s Christmas TV special.  One scene towards the end of that episode shows us Ted at home alone in his apartment on Christmas Day.  He’s missing his son back home in the US while he’s in England on his own.  So Ted’s drinking whisky in front of the TV, feeling sorry for himself, as he watches the Christmas movie classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.  

This movie, directed by Frank Capra, tells the story of George Bailey, played by James Stuart, who dreams of a wonderful life beyond his small town community in Bedford Falls.  George plans to travel the world before starting college – a classic departure and arrival plot line.  But as the story unfolds we start to realise that George’s aspirations of leaving his small town to pursue success in the promising lights of the big city are diminishing with each new family crisis demanding his loyalty and devotion, leading to George finally taking over his father’s leadership at the community building and loan co-op.

The film is an inspired adaption of The Greatest Gift, self published in 1943 which in turn was based loosely on Charles Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol published in 1843.  And in turn the movie has inspired many other stories.

These twentieth century heroic tropes had already been subverted by the fading of modernism’s  faith in  happy endings.  Life was somewhere else but never where we thought at the end of the rainbow where our pot of gold beckons.

In one scene early on in A Wonderful Life, tuxedoed party revellers are dunked fully clothed into the water when the floor covering an indoor swimming pool is retracted.  This scene inspired the mayhem in Blake Edward’s, The Party.  The departed in this story, arriving to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood, is Peter Seller’s bumbling Indian character, Hrundi Bakshi, running amuck at a movie producer’s swank dinner party.  

Another scene towards the end of It’s A Wonderful Life is the alternative reality of Bedford Falls where the angel shows George what life would be like in his home town town if he had not been born.  The town had now been taken over by the corrupt banker, Potter.  Bedford Falls had become an immoral, sleazy, nightmare where George’s family and friends live broken, lonely lives.  George is finally persuaded by the angel’s recasting of time that he was better off being born.  Bedford Falls would not have survived without George’s life invested in his community.

Robert Zemeckis recreates this scene from It’s A Wonderful Life in Back To The Future II when Biff hijacks the time machine in the future, returning to the present with a sports alumni which he gives to his younger self before returning to the future.  The young Biff uses the alumni to make ‘sure’ bets and makes himself one of the wealthiest and corrupt men in America.  Marty and Doc return to Hill Valley in the time machine after Biff has interfered in the time continuum to find to their horror the town in chaos, an evil dystopia brought on by Biff’s mischief.

All these stories are about departing the protagonist’s home town to arrive somewhere else more exciting to find success.  A better life.  

Joe Buck searched for sexual fulfilment and money in the Big Apple.  At the end of the story he leaves New York on the bus with Ratso hoping for better luck in Florida.  Blanche DuBoise was searching for a man that would fall for her charms.  Hrundi left India for Hollywood with hopes to become a star.  And Biff, driven by greed, cheated time in search of power by returning to his younger self back home.  What about Ted Lasso who we left on the couch getting drunk on whiskey?

Ted is rescued by Rebecca to help spread Christmas cheer by playing Santa to give presents to disadvantaged children in public housing flats.  Which in a round about way brings us back to the great reversal found in most of these stories going all the way back to Homer’s Ulysses.  We travel through life searching for success and happiness somewhere else usually to find it back where we started.  But we only come to realise this by departing on our own personal odyssey to eventually arrive back home.

Joan Osborne had a hit in 1995 with the song One of Us.  According to Wikipedia, the songwriter, Eric Bazillan said it was the quickest song he had ever written and it was to impress a girl which worked because they are now married with two kids.

If God had a face, what would it look like? 
And would you want to see
if seeing meant that you would have to believe 
in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints
and all the prophets? 

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin' to make his way home?

Just tryin' to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone
Nobody callin' on the phone
'Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

I was reminded of this song in the process of writing this blog post and reading Thomas Keneally’s latest book, A Bloody Good Rant (2021), which is a collection of essays on his passions, memories and demons.  Keneally, like many other writers, is a strong believer in Carl Jung’s hypothesis of a collective unconscious that we all plug into, including creatives when they write.  Jospeh Campbell, inspired by Jung, took this concept in his own direction in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949).    

In my last blog post about Ted Lasso I wrote, “The prophetic task of the church is to discern the echos of Christ in the world’s culture held in tension with a prophetic critique of the cultural idols of its day.”

Our search for meaning and God’s search for us come together in the stories and aspirations of our lives finding our way back home. 

The song, One Of Us, might not be ‘theologically’ correct but it certainly hints at a deeper truth, a deeper reality to the meaning of life that is embedded in the tropes and plots of the hero myths as explored by Campbell.  

To quote a more orthodox source, Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, that, “You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”  Or recast by U2, “I have spoke with the tongues of angels, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  None of us will, until we find ourselves back home in God.

As far as New Years’ resolutions go, I believe the best resolutions are those that take us back on our journey home.  Resolutions that take us away from our destiny, which lies ultimately in finding God, will not make us successful or as happy as we might think.


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Categories: Culture

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7 replies

  1. How can I go forward if i don’t know which way I’m facing, How can i go forward when i don’t know which way to turn. How can I go forward if it’s something I’m not sure of. In the words of a John Lennon song we are never certain of how to go forward and to start anew. Humans feel that we need to strive daily to reach our goal. What goal ? From the day we have some cognitive understanding of life, we strive to achieve what everyone else wants us to achieve. First our parents then our teachers, then our work mates and friends etc. what would it be like if we just accepted life as it comes and stayed home, figuratively and didn’t strive to get anywhere. What are we looking for ? What do we expect of ourselves ? Do we need to go anywhere to get to nowhere. As you mentioned in order to arrive somewhere we need to depart from somewhere. this is true, but where is that departure point ? Maybe we just go around in circles all our lives and return to that departure point in the end. Let’s save time and never leave the departure point.

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  2. Good article Joel, I sometimes wonder about quests and happy endings, and how the Christian journey is intertwined., especially watching It’s A Wonderful Life. I have constantly wrested with the verse in Psalms where we make our own plans, but the LORD decides where we will go. (Contemporary English Version) but take solace when I feel I’m going off course that God will be with us wherever we go – Joshua 1:9 and this helps to realign and accept course corrections

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  3. Being Human is an ironic journey that we inevitably take to find ourselves at the end, which was at the beginning.

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  4. New Year resolutions and an interesting menagerie of cultural expressions of new beginnings – much appreciated for the trip down memory lane. Our culture reflects the hopes and aspirations of our western society drawn from the classical world and adaptations of famous plays and songs. A very nice selection and concatenation of art in the making. I guess none of us can say within themselves that they have reached their goal and having regret for not having done more is a healthy biblical sentiment rather than an aggrandizement of one’s own achievements – for many of us being appreciated is usually a more posthumous appraisal by others but for us the ever present living before God is timeless – both in our accountability, but mostly as recipients of his great grace – nicely quoted in the article from Augustine – our true rest is in God in his unconditional grace that will evoke an eternity of praise from the lips of his church who will truly see his unmerited favor lavishly and magnanimously granted. Each new year is but a new day in succession of God’s grace who never sleeps or marks time but for us it is a time for prayer to serve and trust in his grace. Our hopes are for 2022 to be a better year that sees our global community tried and tested by this ordeal.

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