In the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life (which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest movies ever made), we have two main characters: George Bailey and Mr. Potter. At first glance, it would seem that they have little in common. Yet they can give us insights into the difference between self-centeredness and selfishness.

In the film we watch George grow up. He’s a delightful kid and a dreamer…he wants to leave that little town and do great things. But something always holds him back. Faced with doing what he wants and what he knows is good for others, George always does the selfless thing, but not without frustration.

Mr. Potter, on the other hand, is a miserly, miserable old man whose life is devoted to himself, without regard for how his choices affect others. He has no heart for the poor and nothing but anger and bitterness in his heart. In a word, he’s selfish. In fact, we get a glimpse of how bleak the world would have been if he had prevailed and had George never been born.

A Different Perspective

But imagine if you had never seen the movie and you tuned into the part after George discovers the $8000 is missing. He comes home and starts yelling at his wife and kids. He’s nasty and ready to throw things. Had you first encountered George Bailey here you might conclude this was a movie about domestic abuse. But anyone who’s seen the whole movie knows better—much better. We watched George grow up. We watched him make sacrifices. We feel his frustration. We’re pulling for him.

What George was experiencing was a bout of self-centeredness. Deeply distressed and frightened, he became preoccupied with worry and frustration. Most of us can relate to that. I remember a close friend of the family who was like an uncle to me. Growing up he always delighted in my sister and me and was a very affirming and loving influence in my life. But after moving to another state, his health began to decline and when he visited for the last time, he was preoccupied and distracted. I felt disappointed…but I understood. He was suffering and that prevented him from being present to me the way he used to be.

On the other hand, the portrait we see of Mr. Potter paints a different picture. His life choices seem to indicate a selfish man who cares little for others. Could he simply be preoccupied with his own pain? Perhaps. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge conveys that very point. A peak into Scrooge’s past showed us what made him the way he was and helped him to change his ways.

First Impressions vs. Deeper Realities

How often is our first glimpse of another individual at a time like that of George Bailey: anxious and scared, frustrated and angry? It’s so easy to judge. But that slice of reality rarely portrays a complete picture.

The point is this: there may be people in your life who hurt you or let you down. They may appear selfish, and perhaps they are. When it’s a parent or other significant person, it can leave a scar and ongoing frustration that’s hard to heal. But remember, you entered into their lives in the middle somewhere.  Had you watched the film of their lives like we do with George Bailey, you may have gotten a different impression. Instead of seeing them as selfish, you might be pulling for them as well.

As much as your own anger and frustration may be justified, holding onto it and judging those who hurt you may only make you self-centered as well and can lead to bitterness. Trying to see the wounded, frustrated child within the offender, forgiving and then directing yourself to others is the way out.  In the end you choose who you want to ultimately be—George Bailey or Mr. Potter.