In a scene from the Hollywood classic It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey yells at Uncle Billy: "Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison. That's what it means."
This season, these are familiar terms. Just open a newspaper: economic uncertainty hangs over us. Missing now, and perhaps for a long time to come, is the innocent sound of laughter and jingle bells in the distance. The uncomplicated joys of the season—little kids on skates, bright eyes that light the sky—seem to go unnoticed.
The holidays are always hard. That is not new. We tend to use these joyous days in a strange way, to measure our lives against expectations, where we are versus where we wish to be. Disappointment comes too easily. Whatever our faith, gratitude for what we have slips beneath the fast-moving fear of failure that says all is at risk or, worse, lost. We seem to be sacrificing this special moment.
The chronically ill—almost 130 million of us—at least have this going for us: we routinely sail directly into a harsh wind, always at risk of going nowhere and even losing it all. We know what matters: what to care about and what to move to the back of our minds. We do not sweat the small stuff.
If you don't believe that health is life's most precious gift, go to one who does not know if he or she will sit at the table with those they love next year. The sick may have learned to live in the moment in ways few others understand. We have no choice. We have nowhere else to go, no matter who or where we are.
Life is precious. The sick understand that as well as anyone. Nothing lasts forever. We have figured that out, too. What is gone in my life, even with all the uncertainty and hardship, helps me focus on what is still there. I do keep learning, as do others around me.
My college-age children know that life is unfair, and they cherish what they have. Their parents see to that, and it is a full-time job. My kids see illness in the family. I hope they never lose what they have learned around the kitchen table: that there are others in the world in need of their help. My kids know they are not the center of the universe. What more important seasonal message is there?
We, the sick, do not often feel sorry for ourselves. Carrying around self-pity is a terrible way to live. That load is large. The road is long. But don't ask us to get exercised if Citigroup stock is down, or if business investments do not return to 100 percent anytime soon. Those tragedies miss the point and are for the chronically healthy to sort out. Maybe we have different ideas about what is important.
A wheelchair is likely in my future—but this holiday season it sits silent in the back of my mind. Every day that I struggle down the steps to the subway is another day I can live on my own terms. I am grateful. Each week in which I can do for myself is a gift.
Back to It's a Wonderful Life: in the movie, George Bailey doubts that his life matters, and so he disappears from the earth. Seeing life without himself, his wife, and children convinces him otherwise. He is not as powerless as he thought. Neither are the chronically ill. We have a lot to live for and much to do. We need to stand up straight and kiss somebody. We should smile, wish someone happy holidays, then get on with it.
Richard M. Cohen is an Emmy-winning TV news producer and author. His column is published on AARP The Magazine Online every two weeks.