George: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Billy: Uh-huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served, dinner…
George: No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.
James Stewart (as George Bailey) in “It’s a Wonderful Life”
I’ve mentioned before that I love the old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In it, the protagonist, George Bailey, is in despair and considers taking his life. As his family and friends pray, God responds by sending “an angel, second class” named Clarence, who shows George what life would be like if he had never been born (and how much impact his life has had on those around him).
One of the key events in George’s life happens when he is 12 years old. He dives into a freezing river to save his brother from drowning, but in the process, he loses the hearing in his left ear. This hearing loss weaves its way through the rest of the movie. As a young man, George designs an indoor swimming pool under the gym floor for his high school (the movie makes no direct link to the earlier event, but it might be presumed that his experience caused him to think of ways to keep active kids indoors during winter months…) His bad ear (and his need to help his dad at the Bailey Building and Loan) keeps him from playing football in high school. It later keeps him from fighting in the war, but leaves him stuck at home coordinating scrap drives and air-raid drills–“safe” but less-than-honorable positions for a young man of his day.
There are many things George cannot hear, but three things he listens for– Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles! George spends much of the first part of his life longing to leave Bedford Falls (his home town), to travel the globe. While his friends travel to exotic places and build successful careers in big cities, George gets tangled up in financing small houses for ordinary people in his small town. All around him are bitter reminders of the life he dreamed of leading. His brother becomes a pilot– a fate denied to him. His best friend makes a fortune selling plastic parts for fighter planes, and takes cruises and fancy vacations that George cannot afford.
There is a dramatic change, however, when Clarence turns George’s life upside-down. One of the first things George notices after Clarence declares that George has gotten his wish (and never been born) is that the hearing has “returned” to his left ear. He marvels at this simple but profound change, but attributes it to his recent encounter with more freezing cold river water. Soon other changes capture George’s attention–his brother is dead because George wasn’t there to save him; his mother is destitute and care-worn because George wasn’t there to save the Building and Loan after his father’s death; none of the houses he helped finance were ever built, and dozens of families are living in squalor and being over-charged for rent by the evil Mr. Potter. And the peaceful town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into a noisy hotbed of crime and filth, anger and greed.
After George has a change of heart and is “returned” to his wonderful life, the hearing loss is back– this time, George laughs in gratitude as his “disability” confirms that all is back to normal. He no longer listens for plane motors or trains whistles– instead, he eagerly listens for the sound of his kids as he returns home, and the breathless call of his wife as she returns home with help and hope in the form of neighbors and friends. The sirens and screaming of his earlier nightmare are replaced with joyous music and laughter.
One of the last shots of the movie shows a tiny, tinkling bell on the Christmas Tree. Zuzu says that her teacher has told the class that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and George, hearing the bell ring, simply says, “Atta boy, Clarence.”
What are we listening for in life? Are we consumed with the sounds of excitement and adventure? Or are we listening for the important sounds of lonely people softly crying, children giggling, birds singing their morning worship song, or raindrops dancing on the sidewalk? Are we listening for the Spirit’s whisper in the wind, or God’s voice in the thunder? Exciting sounds can sometimes deafen us to important sounds. God calls for us to “be still” and know that He is God (see Psalm 46:10)–what we hear in the stillness and silence is rest and peace for our souls. And that is one of the best sounds of all!