Inspired by a dream in 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a heart-warming short story titled “The Greatest Gift.“ When he failed to find a publisher, the author sent it out as his Christmas card the following year, no doubt inspiring friends and family alike. You probably recognize the movie version of the story that came out in 1946 as It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the film, George plans on traveling the world and then dabbling in college before heading off to build skyscrapers. He offers to “lasso the moon” for his sweetheart. Then life, as it often does, gets in the way of his plans. As dilemmas and circumstances come at him from all angles, he is confronted with decisions to make. One by one, he makes the right moral choice. There is always a price to pay for doing what’s right, rather than what seems pleasurable. Bit by bit, George’s future is exchanged for the needs of the present. Until at last, there is nothing left of the future he once envisioned, and he becomes suicidal.
In spite of all that, George is extremely lucky. He lives in the world of fiction where a rosy-cheeked guardian angel can change his entire life by altering reality for him. Then, when the hard lessons are learned, he can change it back again so George can enjoy the rest of his life in the light of his newfound knowledge.
What exactly did he learn?
Each life has a profound impact on the world around him. His angel scolded,
You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.
Viktor Frankl learned a similar lesson that very same Christmas. However, it did not come in a dream. Frankl lived in the real world, where some of life’s most profound lessons are not taught by kind men with peaceful blue eyes. Instead, they are learned at the cruel hand of fate and a reality that allows no escape from sorrow.
The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience…the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.
Unlike George, these men were not denying the gift of life they had been given. They were clawing for it. For the prisoners of Auschwitz, their salvation was within their grasp once they realized what it was.