Usually in the second or third week of December, I host an “It’s A Wonderful Life” viewing party at my house. Friends, family, spiced booze of some kind, and one of the best movies ever made, which also happens to be a holiday classic. This year…? We moved to another state just two weeks ago and we don’t have a house yet, much less enough local friends for a party. What state, you may ask? Well lets just say that my formerly redundant vote in California is going to count now, so prepare to have a difference made, America.
But for now, it’s a gray short term apartment, an arduous house search, and no parties of our own. So,this year, we’re going talk about “It’s a Wonderful Life” here on “What’s Your Theory?”
Jeff Salzman of the DailyEvovler.com is here for a special holiday episode of the Integral Chat, and for at least part of this conversation, I want to talk about one of my personal theories about this movie. As with a lot of my personal theories, it’s about the meaning of words and how a better understanding of the words we use all the time can help us to better navigate our lives.
Faith vs. Belief in “It’s a Wonderful Life”
The meanings of most words change over time. Sometimes popular words and phrases will fade into disuse… words like “hep,” “23 Skidoo,” from the early 20th century, or words from Shakespeare’s time “anon,” “Honorificabilitudinitatibus” and so forth. Other times, and often completely out of the blue, innocuous utilitarian words become sly synonyms for things that people really want to talk about like sex, sex acts, sex organs, or sexual orientation, thus completely changing their meaning while simultaneously hitting the jackpot of linguistic popularity. Ask anyone named Richard after say, 1950. Ask or your cat. Or ask anyone from the 19th century who remembers the “Gay 90’s” a little differently than we might think.
Other words that are maybe less obvious that the sexy ones, words that were once clear and powerful can weaken with use over time just like the color dims on your favorite shirt with every wash.This is how once perfectly expressive words, like “ultimate,” lose their uniqueness to become interchangeable advertising copy.
For instance, the word “ultimate” means “final,” the very last of something.Technically speaking, the “Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich” from Jack in the Box should kill you. Placing “Ultimate” in front of “Sandwich” should be seen as a threat. As in, “this will be the last fistful of bacon, ham, eggs, cheese, and mayonnaise on a hamburger bun you will ever eat before you die.”
I want to talk about two of those kinds of words – the kind that should be clear, should be powerful, but whose meaning and strength have become blurred over time.
“Faith” and “Belief.”
Many people consider these words interchangeable. But they are not. Actually they are quite different. In some ways they are almost opposites.
Both words are frequently used for tackling big issues, and answering the big questions that people have asked since the beginning of asking questions. Everybody knows what those questions are, and everybody has thought about them at some point, either a little or a lot.
“Who are we?”
“What are doing here?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
“What really happens to me after I eat my ultimate breakfast?”
These are the questions we can’t quite answer. Not exactly anyway. We can approximate. We can feel our way. We can guess, suppose, or intricately philosophize some answers. Yes.
But we can’t know.
In order to even talk about this stuff, we need to use words like “faith” and “belief.” This makes them some of the trickiest, most nebulous words we have, because they refer to things that are just beyond our ability to really understand.
In keeping with the Christmas spirit, let’s use one of the greatest films of all time, holiday or otherwise, to illustrate.
In Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” we see the difference between faith and belief played out in the titanic struggle for control of Bedford Falls. For this discussion, “faith” will be championed by George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), and taking up the mantle of “belief” will be Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Now right away you can see that this is stilted, because belief is represented by the villain. Now granted, there are many very good people in the world who have very strong beliefs.That’s certainly true. But it is my contention that anyone can have strong beliefs, heroes and villains alike. But villains do not have faith. Case in point, both Mr. Potter and George Bailey have beliefs.
So we’ll start there, with “belief.”
What, then, are Mr. Potter’s beliefs about the world? Like a lot of people, he believes that his fellow man is basically untrustworthy, ignoble and would stab you in the back the first chance he gets. Fair enough, but is this the case? Why are these Mr. Potter’s beliefs about the world and his fellow men? The answer, as any psychiatrist could tell us, is because his opinion of the world is a reflection of himself, his opinion of himself, and his observations of himself. You’ve heard the phrase “seeing is believing?” Well, it’s true, and Mr. Potter is a perfect illustration. He is untrustworthy, ignoble, and would stab anybody in the back the moment they turned it. He knows it, he can see it for himself, and therefore he believes it is the way things are.
When Uncle Billy accidentally left the $8,000 deposit for the Building & Loan in Potter’s hands… Potter kept it. The richest man in town stole $8,000 because the opportunity was there. What in the world would drive a man without need of money, to steal from people who actually do need it? The answer boils down to one true thing about his character. Mr. Potter fervently believes that someone else would do the same thing to him if they only had they chance. After all, he might say, only a fool wouldn’t take such an advantage when another fool presented it.
Now, the flip side. What are George Bailey’s beliefs?
In the movie, nothing too specific is mentioned. Though there is a scene when, at the end of his rope, in Martini’s bar he turns to God and says “I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please show me the way.” This says something about his beliefs. He’s a bit agnostic (maybe there is a God, but who really knows for sure?). And he doesn’t want handouts, even from God, if he’s there. He would, however, like to know “the way.” So maybe he is a Zen Buddhist… it’s hard to say for sure.
But, like Mr. Potter, George Bailey’s beliefs about the world can be inferred by his actions. He seems to believe pretty much the opposite of Potter concerning the human race. He believes that people are essentially good, and if given half a chance, they will prove it in the clutch. Why does he believe this? Same reason as Potter. Because his view of the world is a reflection of himself. George is essentially good, and as he demonstrates throughout the entire story, given half a chance he always does his best to come through in the clutch.
So what is different about these two men that they would have such opposite beliefs about the world?
The answer is that George Bailey has faith too.
When we say that someone has “the faith of child,” we mean a very good thing. It is a general sense that everything is as it should be, that no matter how bad it may seem in this foxhole, in this hospital bed, hiding from Nazis in your neighbors attic, or even in this concentration camp… everything will be okay when looked at from a wider point of view. It’s possible that you might even have to die to see that point of view. But faith makes that okay too.
But what if we said, “he has the beliefs of an adult?” Is that necessarily a good thing?
Alan Watts once pointed out that the word “belief” comes from an anglo-saxon root (you’ll need an O.E.D. to find it, but the word is pronounced like “leaf,” and likely spelled “lygfh” or something insanely anglo-saxon like that), which means “to wish” or “to hope.” So, to fervently believe something is to fervently wish or hope that is so.
Belief, ironically enough, is what religions call “Faith” with a capital “F.” As in “Defenders of the Faith.” Faith with a small “f” does not need to be defended. While “Faith” (Captial “F”), belief, or Creed (latin Credo: “I believe”) needs to be defended pretty rigorously.
This need for defense naturally arises because the more you act upon a belief, the more you will hope it is so, simply because of all the work you’ve put into living by it. At some point it simply becomes too painful to realize you may have been wrong. This is especially true after you’ve started stealing money from people poorer than yourself, or in extreme cases, after you’ve started lighting people on fire for believing the wrong thing. Once that happens… well, you just better be right, that’s all.
Faith (small “f”) is what the martyr demonstrates when she forgives the people who are burning her at the stake over a question of Faith (capital “F”). Belief is what the Inquisitor has, and it’s the thing that makes him think it is a wonderful idea to light people on fire so they don’t wind up burning in hell for believing something different than he does.
Ironically, the Inquisitor’s belief that this is a good and necessary practice would leave him the instant the roles were reversed. Why? Because he lacks faith.
Faith (small “f”) is what allows a person to be at peace, even in the worst situations imaginable. While faith allows you to relax, belief is an agitator. Belief drives people, sometimes to create great works of beauty and benefit to all. But belief also allows people to create those same “worst situations imaginable” and inflict them on others for what apparently must have “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Joseph Campbell once described this bugaboo of belief as the unenviable situation of climbing a ladder your entire life only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. For many people, life is too short, and too much of theirs has already happened to start worrying about the wall their ladder is propped on. It’s the right wall. Damn it. It has to be. Well, it better be… well, I hope it is anyway.
This is an unfortunate attitude, because admitting your ladder is on a different wall than you had thought, or believed, is an invitation to discover faith.
When the illusion you’ve created falls away, what are you left with? When you realize your ladder is on the wrong wall and you’ve wasted so much time climbing it…what are you left with? That may be a frightening question, but the answer, the good news, and perhaps the true message of Christmas, is… “everything.” When your belief fails, so do your limitations. You are left with everything. Ask Ebeneezer Scrooge about that.
Or the Grinch. To find our own sense of faith, maybe we each need to climb our own personal Mount Crumpet in our own sleigh filled with all those stolen Who-toys for all the Who-girls and boys, sneering at the suckers all the way to the top… until we finally hear that song. You know the one. Our hearts may grow three sizes that day too.
Maybe we can’t get to that big-hearted place of faith unless we first try all the alternatives. Maybe we need to believe our own bullsh*t so strongly that we steal Christmas from Whoville, take advantage if poor Uncle Billy and steal from the Savings & Loan, and then climb on our ladder all the way to the top of the wrong wall.
But the nice part about belief is that your level of commitment is really up to you. For surely, as the richest man in town, Mr. Potter believes it is wrong to steal, right? And yet, his steadfast belief in self-preservation takes precedent over his beliefs about “right” and “wrong” behavior, and leads him deeper into his own dark side. Through Mr. Potter, we can see that beliefs can be ranked in order of importance, and when a little notion like “thou shalt not steal” bumps up against, “always screw the other guy before he screws you…” we see that beliefs are really only reliable until the moment they suddenly aren’t. And when that happens… well, luckily for Mr. Potter he’s still got all that money.
Faith (small “f”), on the other hand, gives you freedom from the tyranny of belief. Or perhaps it is your reward for escaping from that tyranny.
Faith allowed young George Bailey to dive into the freezing stream where the ice broke to save his brother Harry from drowning. Belief, and common sense, would tell anyone that diving into a frozen stream is a potentially fatal thing to do. Faith allows George to act fast and without fear. This also was an early episode in George’s forming beliefs. For him, belief started with an act of faith. And his faith was rewarded. His friends quickly formed a human chain and both George and Harry were saved.
A young Mr. Potter could not have saved Harry from drowning. Without unthinking faith in the other kids, the instinct for self-preservation would have prevented it.
Throughout the film, we see the battle between belief and faith play out. And belief almost wins more than once. Always it is Potter as its voice. Trying to get his hands on the Building & Loan which George has reluctantly protected and nurtured his entire adult life… Potter offers him a job, a huge salary, and everything one could ever need if you believed the world was a dangerous place where walls were needed to keep it at bay. The idea of security for his family almost does it. But George simply does not believe that the world is as it seems to Potter. He might agree that it looks that way, but he doesn’t believe it. He has faith that the world is better than that, even if he can’t always see it.
Later, at the crucial point of the story, George begins to believe in Potter’s vision. All seems lost and Potter’s words echo in his head. “You’re worth more dead than alive.” At that moment, in Martini’s bar, when George asks to be shown “the way” he is on the verge of believing that his family’s future well-being rests in a life insurance policy, and not the uncountable blessings his every action has brought them since his birth. The belief that all is lost brings George to the verge of losing faith.
Then his prayer is answered. The “way” is shone. Suddenly, an old man is drowning in a freezing stream. George Bailey dives in to save him. The “way” it seems never changes.
We can believe that because we can see it. Sometimes.
Or… maybe it’s better to have faith and not have to worry so much about what we can and can’t see.
Faith vs. Belief. Which is stronger?
You all know how the movie ends.