What Matters Most


By Kate Kole

I have a short, eclectic list of movies I’ve seen too many times to count. On it: Father of the Bride, The -original- Parent Trap, Dumb & Dumber (I told you it was eclectic), and It’s a Wonderful Life. I watch and cry my way through George Bailey’s journey every Christmas, but to be honest, I’d watch it in July too. And as a matter of fact, I just might make it a bi-annual tradition starting this year. Because every time I take in the story, I’m left with a feeling of immense gratitude for my family, my friends, my home, my health, and my life.

During the last 10 minutes of the film, I become a bit of a blubberer, tears welling up in my eyes as I shout “Merry Christmas” back at the TV and begin to hug my husband and dogs. It’s emotionally overwhelming in the best way because it’s like I see with fresh eyes all the everyday things that are so easy to overlook and take for granted.

It’s a Wonderful Life offers the perspective that I know is arguably the most essential, and yet, I lose sight of it all the time. It reminds me of the beauty happening in the present moment if I expand my limited view.

The truth is, I regularly find myself thinking about what I’m doing rather than who I’m being. I doubt choices I’ve made. I get stuck on the things that don’t seem to be working out the way I pictured they would. I become hyper focused on what I have (or oftentimes haven’t) achieved. More or less, I get bogged down by what I’ve declared important, and I become consumed by how I’m stacking up in my hustle bustle, do more existence. Through the vicious cycle of measuring my worth, I ultimately begin to doubt my purpose.

But then, every December, Clarence, Angel Second Class, comes along and puts George Bailey and me in our place at once. As we sit and witness how all the details of life would have been different had George never been born, I feel a comforting reassurance, that deep down, that goes for all of us. That whether or not we’re aware of our impact, it exists. That we matter more to our people than we could ever know. That we’ve made loads of a difference, both directly, and indirectly. That how we live and love in our day to day lives is perhaps just as significant as what we do, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Last month, I learned of the passing of a childhood neighbor of mine. I read through her obituary, which provided the facts of her time on this Earth, like where she was born and when she was married. Of course, what it missed, like most obituaries do, were the lesser known details of my 92-year-old neighbor’s life, the particulars that are harder to put into words.

It didn’t include the fact that she made popcorn balls for Halloween trick-or-treaters each year, or that she’d bake homemade cookies for kids to stop by and grab on their way home from elementary school. It lacked the knowledge that she would grow strawberries in her garden and then bottle fresh jam for us to enjoy. It failed to mention what we, as her neighbors, had felt through her kindness, and the sense of a tightknit and caring community she’d offered through the ways in which she loved.

With her passing, a memory of the last time I saw her surfaced in my mind. Unfortunately, it also circled around death. My older brother had unexpectedly passed away, and family and friends quickly flocked to our home to offer support, condolences, and memories of their time with him. She was one to stop by and share her story. Freda told us that my brother, Jason, had been driving down the street and saw that she was out mowing her lawn on a hot summer day. He parked his pick-up truck on the side of the road and insisted that she go inside and he finish the job. It was a small act of kindness, but its impression had forever stayed with her.

That memory of him cutting the grass was the one she kept, the same way that I store memories of her popcorn balls, homemade cookies, and fresh jam. I’ll never know if either of them viewed those acts as significant or not, but the reality is this, they were indescribably important. Beyond that, they were far more meaningful than the things I often analyze and prioritize.

The thing is, I know that what I accomplish is only one piece of the larger picture. And by zeroing in on only my accolades, I somehow manage to both oversimplify and overcomplicate my purpose at the same time. Truth be told, so many of our greatest moments of impact lie in the seemingly little things. They’re found in the encouraging notes we write, and the ‘just thinking of you’ gifts we send. They’re discovered through the smile we offer to strangers and the hugs we give to our family members. Those are the details that make life good. Those are the moments that make life worth living.

At the end of the day, and ultimately, at the end of our time on Earth, we aren’t solely defined by the career paths we chose or the ladders we climbed. Our greatest moments are discovered and marked by how we lived. I could say that’s what I learned through It’s a Wonderful Life, but more than that, it’s what I’ve learned through my own hard and beautiful, frustrating and gratifying, lonely and shared, confusing and wonderful life.

And each time I taste fresh jam, start up the lawn mower, or see George Bailey’s journey unfold, I’m reminded once more of matters most.

{featured image via unsplash}