It’s Not a Wonderful Life

It’s Not a Wonderful Life: Depicting the American Man, Dream, and Menace II Society

By Carly Spraggins

In the Hughes Brothers’ 1993 film Menace II Society, after the protagonist Caine returns from the hospital for the first time he finds himself sitting with his grandparents on their sofa, watching Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is concluding, as its protagonist George Bailey enjoys a jubilant reunion with his family, whom he has finally come to appreciate. Seemingly uncomfortable and anxious as his grandparents watch the film with smiles, Caine is relieved when the moment is interrupted by his best friend and frequent partner in crime, O-Dog. The two friends sit through a lecture from Caine’s grandfather before leaving the house, as he urges the boys to straighten up their acts and stay out of trouble.1

Often described as timeless, heartwarming, and beloved, the American classic It’s a Wonderful Life has taken on the role in cinema of standard bearer for a certain set of American ideals and assumed community values.2 In the context of Menace II Society, a film set nearly 50 years later, on the opposite side of the country, and with characters of different race, class, and disposition, the placement of It’s a Wonderful Life within a living room in South Central Los Angeles initially seems ironic at best, and improper at worst. However, the grandfather’s follow-up question as Caine leaves the home, “do you care whether you live or die?” is drawn directly from the crux of George Bailey’s dilemma in It’s a Wonderful Life. In both Menace II Society and It’s a Wonderful Life, the protagonists seek to answer this question through a process of reliving and reexamining their own trauma. For George, reliving his trauma – a world absent his life – makes him appreciate that life that much more. Alternatively for Caine, reliving his trauma compels him to begrudgingly accept that he is fated to die. Both films are efforts to answer the same question – do I have something to live for in America? Caine’s story is, at its core, the same as George’s, minus the privileges and assumptions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. This absence and lack is the point at which the two tales of self-reflection diverge toward drastically different endings. Menace’s ending is unpleasant not only for its explicit language and gruesome violence, but also for its defiance of the norms of progress and justice. As a film about life in America, Menace II Society is jarring to the mainstream white viewing audience because, contrary to It’s a Wonderful Life, Menace actively defies the assumptions about mobility, belonging, and optimism that form the basis of an imagined American ideal.

Traditionally described as the land of opportunity, America is portrayed with an expectation of social mobility, an expectation embedded in every narrative of how someone “made it”. How such mobility plays out is inherently tied up in the legacy of one’s family. For Caine in Menace II Society, the audience learns very quickly that violence, death, and the dark side of capitalism are in his bloodline. While his father worked the odd jobs of a man at the bottom of the American economic totem pole, his principal labor was selling drugs, some of which Caine’s mother was addicted to. Though the audience is never introduced to O-Dog’s parents, the shopkeeper’s statement to him at the beginning of the film that “I feel sorry for your mother” serves to illuminate a nuanced divide in family dynamics. The shopkeeper’s statement articulates the assumption of the majority culture that by virtue of their relationship, a mother should be proud of her child. In this case, it is likely accurate to presume that O-Dog may not be too proud of his mother either, if she is even a part of his life. As such, he rationally resents the imposition of traditional nuclear family structure expectations on a familial dynamic they cannot possibly understand. Caine describes his own parents as entertaining others in their home often, with a crowd of people who either just got out of jail or who were about to go to jail. In this way, this group of people passed down their own assumptions about Caine’s future and in his words, “turned him onto trouble.” By contrast, George Bailey has a predetermined role in the economy, passed down from his father via the family company. The eponymously named company automatically gives him economic and social capital in their community as a product of name recognition, not of any work he did himself. In the cases of both men, their prospects for economic and social mobility cannot be separated from that of their family. Further, the disparities inherent in their quests for mobility make direct comparisons of the two flawed, as this quest is “a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead.”3

Menace II Society also presents a number of visually compelling structures and scenes with different characters, across different generations, as a symbol of the inability to escape one’s family’s mistakes, even on a small scale. The repeated imagery of shootings or threatened shootings in close proximity over kitchen tables and toddlers drinking alcohol on the front stoop alludes to the film’s broader exploration of how, if gangsters are able to take advantage of some shred of mobility, they might go about getting out of the life their family passed down to them. In an equally powerful image at the end of the film, Anthony, the young son of Caine’s friend and romantic interest Ronnie, is thrown from his Big Wheel tricycle, as Caine protects him from the bullets of a drive-by shooting. The broken tricycle on the sidewalk provides a visual cue that Caine’s death is the destruction of Anthony’s way out – if Anthony was going to learn to be better than his imprisoned father, he would have learned it from Caine.

As with most texts, most of “the initial contact between the film and its audience is an agreed conception of human life: that man is a being with the possibility of success or failure.”4 If such a conception is in fact agreed upon, the added implication of the ever-progressing modern metropolis is such that “labor conflict, unemployment, poverty, urban blight [should have] ceased to exist.”5 Such seems to be the case in the idealized town of Bedford Falls, New York, where the characters of It’s a Wonderful Life, despite occasional, unpredicted financial panic, all appear to have very negligible disparities in economic wealth. This combination can be taken so far as to suggest that in this ideal urban setting, mobility should be a non-issue because there should be no desire to leave.

However, the reality is that such progressive metropolis’ can never come to full, realistic fruition and the litany of aforementioned social and economic ills exist, to varying degrees, in every community. With the accompanying cultural symptoms of modernization and industrialization, the “heightened perceptions of geographic mobility, ethnic divisions, and class-segregated neighborhoods weakened the notion of elite social stewardship.”6 This supposed death of the last remnants of the lingering white man’s burden has been maintained in contemporary political promotions of personal responsibility for one’s own forward progress. In other words, individuals are permitted to be socially and economically mobile, but no one is going to help them along the way. When George Bailey insinuated that their company be sympathetic to individualized needs and circumstances, the miserly Mr. Potter replies, “What does that get us? A discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class,” in effect personifying the conservative, individualistic ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ ideology.

Many early gangster films showed how the gangster’s extravagant consumption blurred class distinctions and hinted at increased socioeconomic mobility. In the same way, the conspicuous lack of cultural markers and consumption within Menace II Society serves as an indicator of their total lack of economic mobility; they cannot even use popular culture to fake being outside their class.7 As protagonists, George and Caine have different hurdles when it comes to mobility – George has the means, both financially and in his superfluous knowledge of travel reference points, but is held back by personal obligations. Caine has no obligations, but is held back by lack of means and institutional barriers. Menace II Society makes clear its point of view that society is the real culprit in holding Caine back. In the traditional gangster film, where the gangster’s aspirations and personal choices are the origin of his criminality, “we gain the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadism and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.”8 But there is nothing satisfying about Caine’s death.

A great deal of this dissatisfaction is entrenched in the fact that the audience is not seeing the process of finding the ending to either film – it is clear in both films how they will end and our confidence as viewers in the inevitability of these respective endings further engrains the division between our imagined America and the realities of American life. For the gangster, wherever we find him, “he has already made his choice or the choice has already been made for him, it doesn’t matter which: we are not permitted to ask whether at some point he could have chosen to be something else than what he is.”9 Yet at the same time, there is a force with which the dominant, white power structures of America are self-assured by assuming that there always is a choice, even when they cannot identify it. As Caine is graduating from high school, his teacher leads off a closing speech with “whatever you decide to do…” as though to fool herself into thinking their courses are not already set. This blurred understanding of mobility and inevitability is confusing even to the characters most immersed in the debate–

Caine: I’m not going to end up like he did [Pernell, with a life sentence in jail].

Ronnie: Oh really?! While Ronnie appears to have the most consistent faith and investment in Caine’s ability to better himself, this challenge to Caine’s own suggestion of mobility suggests that she doubts how far he will really be able to get from his origins.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life seldom directly addresses its effort to consider and rearticulate American identity, it makes strong use of setting and theme to create an environment where sense of belonging is a worthy American expectation. As a film set during Christmas, its markers encompass both the consumer culture and ambiguous but ubiquitous Christian dogma that often serve as a proxy for national identity. Without verbally declaring their own patriotism, the men and women of It’s a Wonderful Life express a loyalty to the place and space they inhabit. They have a sense of belonging, a sense that, “for everyone else, there is at least the theoretical possibility of another world – in that happier American culture, which the gangster denies.”10

While their acceptance of the ‘happier American culture’ is not explicit, Caine’s denial of it most certainly is. Upon Ronnie’s suggestion that the two move with her son Anthony to Atlanta where she has found a new job, Caine snaps, “Ain’t nothing going to change in Atlanta. I’m still going to be black. You act like Atlanta ain’t America.” George’s brother Harry in It’s a Wonderful Life embodies the closest direct expression of patriotism in either film, as a war hero. And yet he ends the film calling George “the richest man in town.” This is more reasonable within the Christmas context, as it is consistent with the religious implication that faithful people will be rewarded. In a more disheartening expression of this same religious ideology, Caine’s religious grandparents seem to be the only characters within Menace II Society that are unwaveringly confident in the value of the protestant work ethic, despite the fact that they are are still resigned to live in the projects. Caine is, and is destined to be, perpetually tortured by “the fantasy of self-sufficiency”11 because unlike George, Caine does not have a community to fall back on when he falters.

The contrasting pictures of American belonging in the two films are also heavily tied to the landscapes themselves. The validation of George’s panic is that his physical landscape would change if he were not a part of it. His personal identity is so absorbed into the identity of the place that its name changes in his absence, from Bedford Falls and Bailey Farms to Pottersville. Across the country, Menace II Society features a version of the Los Angeles landscape without any distinctive markers. Despite the context of the Watts riots, its landscapes are isolated and portrayed in a way that would suggest that is had no broader political significance. The city is isolated not only from the nation, but from its own population as “the evacuation of young black males from the public sphere has proceeded on every front.”12 In the middle of the film, a large group of young black men disperses quickly when the cops come. When a man lives in the projects, he does not really belong anywhere. Further, the men maintain a “steady loyalty to ghetto realism – the appearance of being totally determined by one’s social environment.”13 Despite seeming to reject religion, O-Dog makes an intriguing early assertion that no one, from themselves to God, really wants them to be where they are, as he tells Caine’s grandfather, “Sir, I don’t think God really thinks too much about us, or he wouldn’t put us here. I mean look where we stay at. It’s all fucked up…It’s messed up around here.”

When they are able to maintain a presence in their community, the men of Menace II Society become a part of “the unseen population of the metropolis.”14 Especially as black men, they have an anonymity unlike George Bailey, who is distinctly recognized everywhere he goes. Caine and O-Dog’s experiences illuminate both the benefits and dangers of the centrifugal tendency towards invisibility. When Harold is shot dead, O-Dog screams, “That man is dead! Fuck that! That man is dead!” as he rushes their group to the hospital with Caine, leaving Harold to die, nameless in the street. George addresses this sense of anonymity of the masses with the antagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter, when he tells him “those people are human beings. But to you they’re cattle.” Speaking in a way that is remarkably direct to Caine’s community, he continues on to say “this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” There has always been an anonymity to being poor. The change across the 20th century was the slow burn that caused people to face the fact that there has also always been an anonymity to being black. Despite how sad it makes him, George Bailey’s reliving of his life is important because he sees that the community would be drastically different without him. The angel Clarence cheerfully remarks, “each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t alive it leaves an awful hole doesn’t it?” But the loss of Caine does not leave a hole and his world is not drastically different without him. He’s a widget in a system that throws away black lives like garbage.

For society at large, Caine and his friends will never belong because they are burdens, not assets. In their constant effort to have needs fulfilled, they act as children at times. There is an ever-present and continuous realization among them, “as every child soon notices, however important he is – however beautiful or loved or clever – he is also nothing special. There is always a point of view – that will forever haunt him – from which he is of no interest.”15 This realization is translated very clearly to the audience. Caine displays a unique mixture of adult and childlike behaviors. With Ronnie, Caine straddles the line between kid brother and lover, just as with her son, Anthony, it is unclear whether Caine is more big brother or father figure, playing children’s videogames with a handgun on the end table.

George and his friends display a related-childlike tendency to insist upon being the center of attention. Their greeting of one another, a childlike waving of hands accompanied by nonsensical noises, physically garners public attention for themselves. Yet while for Caine his childlike behaviors are barriers and markers of immaturity, George is praised for them. The angels in the beginning of the film admire George because “he’s got the faith of a child.” Though he remained a child in many ways, Caine was never afforded the opportunity to adopt such an innocent faith.

While the anonymity created by his race and class give him little opportunity for upward mobility and belonging, the pursuit of this belonging is even more treacherous to Caine when he is noticed by society. As expressed by the white gaze on the 1992 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, it is assumed that “if they cease hitting him, he will release his violence and now is being justifiably restrained.”16 In the same way, the police of Menace II Society take on the assumption that if they stop watching the black community, it will release its criminality and thus are being justifiably surveilled.

Before O-Dog kills him, the shopkeeper says, “I don’t want any trouble. Just get out,” to express an expectation that physical closeness to the black man is, in effect, physical closeness to imminent violence. Ironically, in this case it is the shopkeeper’s expression of this expectation that causes it to come to fruition. However, the notion that “violence is the imminent action of the black body.”17 is not unique to the character of the shopkeeper – “America has always viewed its black population as a kind of sleeper cell – either criminals in fact, or criminals in waiting.”18 By virtue of their blackness, Caine and O-Dog, regardless of their personal behavior, are restricted from assimilating into the accepted, lawful class of American citizens.

Both the history of American crime and crime-based cinema traditionally assumed that “as the gangster rose in crime and in society, he came into his own as a consumer and usually shed the obvious markers of his ethnicity.”19 The obvious problem with this assertion in the case of contemporary black gangs is that their ethnicity is considered a marker of their criminality, and vice versa. Despite the widespread culturally recognition of many black gangs, like LA’s infamous Bloods and Crips, there is no purge of their criminality, class, or blackness for their respective members. Instead, “his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality”20 and his public existence in blackness is understood as a public admission of guilt. This contrast to the oft-repeated white American ideal of innocence until proven guilty is further exemplified as the police in It’s a Wonderful Life calmly follow George to the abandoned home to reason with him, despite his continuous erratic behavior.

The inequality of social roles both within and between the films mirrors this inequality of roles in the justice system. O-Dog, in particular, will never belong to the society around him because he has taken on the role that was given to him by white society, as that of a guest. Across industries, “of course, white culture has always compelled black males to be performative in public, usually as entertainers or as athletes.”21 O-Dog’s obsession with the surveillance tape as his gateway to success and personal glory emphasizes the degree to which he has taken on the role of a sideshow beast to be watched with equal amounts awe and disgust. But just as O-Dog is compelled to take on the role the dominant structure gives him, so too is the audience – “in order to grasp the true nature of space, the observer must project himself through it.”22 As such, a further source of the white mainstream audience discomfort with Menace II Society is that that audience, projecting themselves through the world of the film, may see themselves fitting into the role of the oppressor, the superior dictator of positions.

The ease with which the gangsters in Menace II Society accept the ascribed role is, importantly, just as much a product of the emptiness of their lifestyle as it is their external social pressures. It is hard to imagine a space in which anyone would truly belong, if they lacked any purpose for being there. Outside of the aforementioned performative role, violence against one another is the main activity through which the men of Menace II Society find purpose and relative productivity, for if “rage renders us helpless, revenge gives us something to do. It organizes our disarray.”23 In this construction, “success is defined…simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression.”24

Ultimately, Menace II Society makes its greatest challenge to the assumption of a desire for belonging by makings its characters’ central motivation a desire to flee. George certainly expresses a desire to flee Bedford Falls and, in a way, has sorrow over his inability to do so. However, this desire is differentiated in that George’s plans to flee always come with an underlying understanding that he would return eventually, whether from a summer abroad, college or his honeymoon. Caine’s desire to flee is expressed as much more final and absolute. Though wrought with interpersonal dilemma and debate, Caine is in the process of fleeing Los Angeles when he meets his particularly untimely end. It seems to be no coincidence that Anthony’s clothes change from a LA Lakers t-shirt in the middle of the film to an unexplainable Detroit Pistons hat in the final scene, expressing an ‘anywhere but here’ attitude that so many adopt as a coping mechanism.

Finally, the most all-encompassing assumption of American life that Menace II Society defies is optimism, and the belief in the inherent good of the system and life itself. At its core, “America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life.”25 No media text is better at encapsulating and propagating this disposition than It’s a Wonderful Life. As the angels discuss George Bailey in the beginning of the film, one asks “is he sick?” The other replies, “No, worse, he’s discouraged,” as though to be discouraged is an ailment and misalignment in itself. Caine rejects this assumption when Ronnie visits him in the hospital for the second time–

Ronnie: Why don’t you smile for a change?

Caine: I ain’t got shit to smile about.

Ronnie: You alive ain’t you?

Caine: Yeah. And who says that’s good?

In its editing, the opening footage of the Watts Riots, and Caine’s suggestion that the riots opened the doors for drugs into the city, the film serves to signify the point at which the optimism left the city. Even in the face of this absence, Ronnie and Caine continue to have intermingled but conflicting views on what role the notions of optimism and gratitude should play in their lives. While Caine suggests that he should be dead by now, and thus, is not optimistic about the future, Ronnie replies that “you need to be glad that you graduated from high school and that you’re alive at 18,” because relative to the rest of their community, that is something to be thankful for.

In many ways, it is the familiarity of their suffering that makes it so difficult for Caine to discern the ambiguities of his experience. Once sadness and loss became routine, they lose their ability to upset the young, disenfranchised black man and incite emotion, because “we wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted.”26 The glimmer of attention he pays to his trauma occurs when Caine goes to jail and says “I don’t care what any of them said, it’s no place I could get used to.” George Bailey, whose routine is to expect that his good character can fix all things, shows his first outburst of anger in the board room up against Mr. Potter, in a moment where he faces the institutional constraints and restrictive power dynamics that are the heart of Caine’s existence. In this moment, he exposes “not merely my loss of control – that so-much-wished-for-transgression – but far more shamefully I expose my furtive utopianism, my horrifying, passionate ideal of, and for, myself.”27

The combined lack of optimism and presence of understated, recurring trauma become “not simply an effect of destruction but also, fundamentally, an enigma of survival.”28 Survival becomes a burden because one knows what pain to expect. The most common coping mechanism of Menace II Society is to “evoke an affectless masculinity, conceived under siege, and resonating with a long history of presenting a neutral face as a mask of inscrutability to the white gaze.”29 O-Dog is described by Caine as “America’s Nightmare. Young, Black, and didn’t give a fuck.” Specifically, the constant condemnation of “not giving a fuck” presupposes that one should inherently be grateful to be alive. As the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life describes it, everyone should be grateful for their life, and do everything possible to avoid “giving away God’s greatest gift,” despite the fact that in Caine’s world, it is very easy to understand why living would be viewed as punishment, not a gift.

It is only in embracing the harsh reality of the black male life that the teacher, Mr. Butler, is able to get Caine to consider the possibility of a reason to live. Mr. Butler tells Caine, “Being a black man in America isn’t easy. The hunt is on. And you’re the prey.” Not only are Caine and his friends not supported by American institutions, they often suffer at the hands of them, like when the police beat them and then dropped them off in an enemy neighborhood, setting them back and putting them in greater danger. This experience is far different than George Bailey’s. He gets a ride home from the cops of Bedford Falls. Caine appreciates Mr. Butler’s honest look at reality, when he considers that “Purnell taught me how to survive on the streets. But Mr. Butler was talking about surviving for good.” Caine struggles with this because he is forced to make finer distinctions about what it means to live well, as “survival becomes, for the human being, paradoxically, an endless testimony to the impossibility of living.”30 Unfortunately, this struggle makes the progress of Menace II Society feel frustratingly but realistically cyclical, because it is in revenge that they express their “belief that losses can be made good (revenge as savage optimistic mourning).”31

The practicality of this belief is displayed in the interesting way in which what starts as a revenge killing of Caine’s cousin’s murderers is quickly processed and translated into a learning experience, a skill to be applied to future survival, as Caine lies in bed lamenting that all he took from the murder was the knowledge that he could do it again if he needed to. In the same way, expressions of their human needs as a poor, underserved minority community are translated into expressions of rage. This is most dynamically captured when O-Dog’s friend calls the white man out on the fact that he is scared to come through the projects at night but he is not scared to ask the black man for a favor. He is angrily calling attention to the historical legacy of the white man’s use of the black man as a means to an end, tools meant to accomplish and survive, but not thrive.

In the corollary, it is a luxury of their race and lifestyle that the community of Bedford Falls can conclude the film It’s a Wonderful Life with a rendition of the hymn ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, a triumphant song that declares “God and Sinners reconciled.” In stark contrast, the conclusion of Menace II Society leaves all of its dilemmas, questions, and sinners completely unreconciled. In the idealism of It’s a Wonderful Life, this hymn might as well be a national anthem. The utopian nationalistic sentiment is extended with the closing image of a ringing and uncracked liberty bell. The text on the liberty bell, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” is taken from Leviticus and is a further symbol of Protestant religious theology absorbed into American patriotic rhetoric. The image of the uncracked liberty bell is symbolic of the movie’s version of the American ideal – pure, untarnished ideology, without any gaps in equality, opportunity, and self-worth.

In the opposite of optimism, “in rage we make our presence felt, if only to ourselves…a hope that we can redress the searing humiliation of being ignored when we are in need of something.”32 If one follows this, they must also face the politically inconvenient idea that the black men of America’s projects and ghettos would be less angry and violent if only their basic human needs were met. Yet even in the face of relatively clear-cut, if certainly oversimplified solutions to major problems, “euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot.”33 Even ‘sad’ movies, like It’s a Wonderful Life, use the pain of their characters as an impetus to inspire even grader optimism and hope. In his idyllic reunion with his family, even the pain of his bleeding lip is used as evidence of his revelry in the trials and tribulations of living. The privilege and presumptuous attitude of the majority serve as blinders to the harsh realities of a history of oppression. Clarence, George’s angel, is insistent and antsy, pestering “don’t you see? You really had a wonderful life.” Perhaps the problem is not that George did not see, but rather that he had seen too much to buy into the delusion of American prosperity any longer. Yet they continue, as “those of us who are white have a remarkable capacity for delusions.”34 Because despite their extreme removal and distance from the reality of what they purport to represent, the magnetic, optimistic, but empty force of these representations remain.

The idea that It’s a Wonderful Life and Menace II Society share a significant portion of their DNA, while shocking at the outset, is in line with the history and evolution of self-reflective narratives on the meaning of American life. In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life’s premise of the protagonist looking on at a community that he has gone missing from borrows directly from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” a book that is central to George’s relationship with the angel Clarence throughout the film. As this lineage follows, Tom Sawyer is a boyhood hero, George Bailey is a ‘common man’ hero, and Caine is left to be simply tragic. In the course of his narrative, Caine “progresses by inalterable paths to the point where the gangster lies dead and the principle has been modified: there is really only one possibility – failure. The final meaning of the city is anonymity and death.”35 It is not so much the death that is tragic. Absent mobility, belonging, and optimism, the heartbreak of Caine’s death is its inevitability. In the face of it, he remembers that his grandfather asked him if he cared whether he lived or die – “yeah I do care. Now its too late.” In the world he was born into, it was always too late.

Generations of American audiences have loved the idealized world of It’s a Wonderful Life because “people are more difficult, and more satisfying to love than ideals. And our ideals create the illusion that we can stop time, that something is permanent even if we are falling short.”36 Whether one loves or disdains them, the inconsistent and conflicted men of Menace II Society fill a world that lives up to its tagline; This is the truth. This is What’s Real. Where Menace II Society defies, confronts, and betrays, It’s a Wonderful Life comforts, protects, and narrows. But the question is not which world we would prefer to live in, but rather which world we will live in in the future – “perhaps the central question is whether the city will continue to serve as a unifying core…or whether it will be utterly fragmented.”37 In this conception, the ‘city’ is America. If it cannot unify us, will we not all be destined to slowly but surely lose our upward mobility, sense of belonging, optimism, and ultimately, our will to live?