A few years ago I wrote an article for the Catholic Herald in praise of the film It’s A Wonderful Life. One of the points I made there was that the hero of the film, George Bailey, excelled in the heroism of everyday life – that is to say, he was a good father, a good husband, a good friend. He was a decent employer and a reliable neighbour.
Bailey struggles with regret about what he sometimes sees as the smallness of his life in the fictional town Bedford Falls. Early in the film he declares: “I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long”. But these grand ambitions do not materialise, and his understandable disappointment feeds into his personal crisis which is at the heart of the film’s story.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram constantly exhibit others … who appear to be wealthier than we are, more successful, more attractive, better-travelled. – Niall Gooch
A lot of people are in a similar position: they have ambitions which they struggle to realise. It is natural for humans to dwell on what might have been, to reflect on the path not taken. “Footfalls echo in the memory, Down the passage which we did not take, Towards the door we never opened”, as TS Eliot puts it in the poem Burnt Norton.
I wonder whether the internet age has increased the number of people who feel this way – whether it has intensified the feeling of regret. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram constantly exhibit others – often our friends, acquaintances or school contemporaries – who appear to be wealthier than we are, more successful, more attractive, better-travelled. The temptation to compare our own lives unfavourably to those who are seemingly having a better time of it can be very strong. And it’s not necessarily just about squandered opportunities. I’m sure many people feel a kind of resentment or disappointment at their lack of such opportunities, or that life dealt them a bad hand in terms of intelligence or ability or their conformity to conventional standards of attractiveness.
Greatness is achievable even if we never become a household name, or never travel far from home, or never become rich and powerful. – Niall Gooch
There is no going back from the age of mass communication and mass media. We cannot return to a world where people’s ambitions, expectations and moral compasses were not shaped by films, TV, advertising and lifestyle influencers.
The Church might have an antidote, and it is this: to help people rediscover the nobility and importance of the well-lived ordinary life. “To be faithful in a little thing is a great thing”, wrote St Augustine in his book On Christian Doctrine, echoing Christ’s words in Luke 16:10: “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater”. Greatness is achievable even if we never become a household name, or never travel far from home, or never become rich and powerful. We can live a good life by the exercise of small-scale virtue in the situations where God has placed us.
We will always need politics, to be sure, but how much more we need people who act as beacons of virtue and neighbourliness in their communities. We need people who drive minibuses for the elderly and disabled, and volunteer at hospices, and keep churches clean. We need people who pick up litter and act as JPs. We need honest policemen and diligent clerks of parish councils. The Church must insist that yes, this is the stuff of a fulfilled and fulfilling life; faithfulness in little things and common duties. We find meaning through service to others.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also writes regularly for UnHerd.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.