But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together:
 And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him:
 Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?
 Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.
 This is the greatest and the first commandment.
 And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
 On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.
Matthew 22: 34-40
If you really want to be happy in this world, and in the next, do good to others. It is a truly simple lesson, but it is amazing how many people lead their entire lives without grasping it. This of course is not happiness in the “Wee, that was a wild roller coaster ride!” sense, but in the sense of the satisfaction of a joy that surpasses understanding, the type of joy that parents experience as they see their kids growing up to be responsible parents themselves, or the joy of a priest who sees a penitent sinner embracing wholeheartedly Christ.
It is not given us in this life to foreknow the tangled paths that our lives will follow or to predict what we will be remembered for, or if anyone will remember us at all after we are gone. What we do know, however, is whether our lives are a blessing or a curse for those we encounter is very much determined by our own actions. Altruism, love of neighbor, is an all important factor in determining the balance sheet of our lives, and often time that means going against our short-term selfish desires for what may turn out to be a path that leads us to what we will be remembered for.
A perfect example of this is George Washington. Today is the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Trenton, in which Washington led a Continental Army on the point of defeat and dissolution across the Delaware and captured the entire Hessian garrison of some 900 troops at Trenton. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory of Trenton. It renewed hope in ultimate American victory in the struggle, led directly to a second American victory on January 3, 1777 at Princeton and the abandonment of much of New Jersey by the British. But for this brilliant stroke by Washington, the American struggle for independence might well have died in the winter of 1776-1777.
And the man who worked this miracle, George Washington, was he a professional soldier who had always desired to be at the head of a great army and to gain victories that would echo down through the centuries? Well, actually he was a Virginia planter and throughout the War, and when he served as first president of these United States, his personal correspondence centered upon Mount Vernon, his plantation, and instructions about the planting of crops, the care of livestock, prices for commodities, the upkeep of buildings, etc. Left to his own desires Washington would have lived out his entire life at Mount Vernon, been quite happy, and been a footnote in our histories, if he appeared at all except for his service in the French and Indian War. Instead, he answered the call to duty, took up the burden of command of the Continental Army in the Revolution, although he feared he was unequal to the task, and served as our first president, although he found the duties onerous and realized that he was sacrificing much of the remaining years of his life away from his beloved Mount Vernon. Washington, as a result of his sacrifices, will be remembered as long as there is a United States and as long as men cherish freedom. The path of altruism was for him also the path to his true life’s work.
The same can be said for George Bailey.
The above video is the pivotal scene in the movie. George rises to the defense of his father’s life’s work: the savings and loan that allows people in Bedford Falls to escape from Potter’s slums and become home owners. To save the savings and loan, George gives his brother the money George has saved to go to college so that he can attend college while George takes over the presidency of the savings and loan. His journey down the path of altruism will cost him his dream of being an engineer, traveling the world and building huge products. Instead he gains true love, a family and the admiration and respect of the people he helps in Bedford Falls. His altruism is not a one way street, even in regard to business success.
George Bailey is a man on his way up. Due to his hard work, honesty and decency he has developed a strong community support for the Savings and Loan. In a scene that is often overlooked in the film Potter is informed by his rent collector, played by Charles Lane, perhaps the best character actor of his era, that George Bailey is a mortal threat to his operation:
REINEMAN Fifteen years ago, a half-dozen houses stuck here and there. (indicating map) There’s the old cemetery, squirrels, buttercups, daisies. Used to hunt rabbits there myself. Look at it today. Dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw. Ninety per cent owned by suckers who used to pay rent to you. Your Potter’s Field, my dear Mr. Employer, is becoming just that. And are the local yokels making with those David and Goliath wisecracks!
POTTER Oh, they are, are they? Even though they know the Baileys haven’t made a dime out of it.
REINEMAN You know very well why. The Baileys were all chumps. Every one of these homes is worth twice what it cost the Building and Loan to build. If I were you, Mr. Potter . . .
POTTER (interrupting) Well, you are not me.
REINEMAN (as he leaves) As I say, it’s no skin off my nose. But one of these days this bright young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job.
This causes Potter to offer George a job, which, after being momentarily tempted, he angrily declines. George has found his life’s work. He doesn’t get to build a few grand projects around the globe, but many small projects in Bedford Falls, grand to those he benefits as a result. Success is coming his way, with even the loss of $5,000.00, stolen by Potter courtesy of the absent-mindedness of Uncle Billy, being only a momentary set back.
It has been said that sin is its own punishment and virtue is its own reward. I believe that. However it is interesting how even in this often unjust world we see sin punished and virtue rewarded. There are no guarantees, and many people will meet with justice only in the life to come, but even here on earth it is not that uncommon to see that our actions do have consequences, for ill and good. The paths of our lives are hidden to us, but often some act of altruism we have the opportunity to perform, points us on our way. Something to keep in mind during Advent and all the rest of the year.