“How much do you need?”

I’m sure most of you have seen the classic holiday film It’s A Wonderful Life.

For the three of you who haven’t, it’s the story of George Bailey, a man who has devoted his life to others. He’s been putting off his dreams forever – and now, on Christmas Eve 1945, the fact that some money is missing at the family-run Building and Loan he runs might land him in jail.

He’s desperate, convinced that his family and friends would be better off without him, when he contemplates suicide to get insurance money to pay off the debt. Enter Clarence Oddbody, an angel “second class” who is trying to earn his wings. By showing George what the world would be like without him, Clarence reminds him (and us) that each and every life has far-reaching, profound value.

The film has always been a family favorite, but this year the story is even closer to my heart. Our community theater is producing a stage version, and I’m portraying Mary, George’s wife. In true art-imitates-life fashion, my husband portrays George.

I thought I knew the story inside and out, but portraying Mary has given me a different perspective. George is the star of the show – in literary terms, the protagonist, the “center of interest.” He’s the one who leads the action, the one who is most changed at the end of the day. Mary’s role is really a small one. She’s at George’s side throughout, but not much attention is paid to her. George is the one we’re focused on.

There is a scene that takes place in the Building and Loan at the start of the depression – there’s a “run” on the bank. George and Mary just got married, and now there is danger that the family business will be lost. George saves the day by using the money he and Mary received as wedding gifts. That’s the way I remembered the scene. But wait – MARY is the one who steps forward, cash in hand, asking “How much do you need?”

How much do you need?

As I performed the scene, a wad of fake cash in hand, I began to think about what it would take to do something like that. I put myself in Mary’s shoes. I had just left the church, and was about to embark on an exciting honeymoon trip. We had $2000 – a really large sum in those days. (The equivalent to about $25,000 today.) Hearing the tales of woe from my friends and neighbors, who needed to feed their children, whose husbands were out of work, would I hold up the whole chunk of cash and say “How much do you need?”

And then watch while they took every penny?

I don’t know if I could do that. Mary is motivated by love – mostly by her love for George. That kind of love takes courage. Mary trusted that God would provide for her if she gave generously. (At least the Mary I portrayed did!)

I know it’s just a story, a work of fiction. But I found a new way to be inspired by it this season. When I hear the requests of others, I hope to respond generously, rather than give only the smallest amount.

When I find out how much is needed, I hope I’ll be inspired to give that much – and more.

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