“The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love.” Saint Teresa of Avila
*Disclaimer: I’m poking fun in my title at the notion that so many articles in magazines and online purport to offer anything like this. While I have grouped my thoughts into “seven categories,” don’t plan on checking them off. These are principles rather than a to-do list.
I watched the movie Groundhog Day this year. I’d seen it maybe once or twice before, and it had resonated with me the way it does for so many people. This year though, unlike the first time I saw it at my husband’s apartment in Harlem in my twenties, I was thinking of a widow friend who told me her life post- death was “like Groundhog Day.” I was thinking of people my age starting to go through a genuine mid-life crisis. And I was thinking of what it feels like to be “stuck.” Stuck in the daily grind, the same sink of dirty dishes, same dust bunnies you just vacuumed up last week, or the same alarm ringing to wake you up for another long commute and another long day inside the walls of a cubicle. Stuck without seeing any real progress- barely keeping up with all of life’s routine maintenance, the tyranny of the urgent they call it, and never getting around to all those important things you say you’ll do “just as soon as…” Time just keeps passing, and you drift along with this sick feeling in your gut that your very life is alluding you- and that while you’re still getting ready for it, it will be gone. So, I set out to watch the film a few times, write about it, and figure out how Bill Murray did it- how he became unstuck. How he eventually used what seemed like a horrifying nightmare- waking up day after day on the same day, everyone else around him having zero memory of anything that happened the previous day- essentially having no future- to study French poetry, learn how to ice sculpt and play the piano. Whatever he plugged into, I wanted to plug into also.
Well, I started this piece on Groundhog Day, February 2nd, but it turns out there’s a lot of information to process when it comes to this movie, and if you’ve read this far, settle in because I too had a lot more to say than I initially thought. The little bit of background research I thought I’d do before writing my own thoughts on the movie turned up dissertations, theological debates, and philosophical treatises- all using this Bill Murray movie- before Bill Murray was as “cool” as he now is- as their jumping off point. Some people believe the Pennsylvania town Bill Murray’s character, Phil, finds himself in, is actually purgatory (Sorry Pennsylvanians). Christians, Jews, Hindus, all find resonance in the film because it is so rich and complex in metaphor and symbolism. Nietzsche’s eternal return theory and Kierkegaard’s repetition are discussed. I found a fascinating piece on a Jungian perspective of Phil (who shares the same name as the groundhog), confronting his “shadow” much like the groundhog does. And when Phil says in one scene, “Maybe God isn’t omniscient, he’s just been around a really long time,” a NY Times article suggests it’s a possible reference to the doctrine of God’s “middle knowledge,” an idea constructed by a 16th century Jesuit theologian that argued “human free will is possible because God’s omniscience includes His knowledge of every possible outcome of every possible decision” (NY Times 12.07.03, Groundhog Almighty). This sounds a lot like today’s popular multi-verse theory – the one I found myself trying to explain to my six-year old the other day for some reason: some scientists believe there are an infinite number of universes in other dimensions, and it’s even possible you have a doppleganger on one of them doing things slightly differently in the same situations. Her actual reply was: “Hubba wha?”
I always enjoy works that deal with time travel and Phil’s strange time loop is a fascinating one. He is alive, but dead. He is stuck reliving the same day, but still has the ability for growth, change, and memory that usually come with the passage of time. Phil’s loss of the future evokes Viktor Frankl’s words in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” “A man who could not see the end of his ‘provisional existence’ was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life.” He goes on to give the examples of the unemployed worker, prisoners, and tuberculosis patients and describes how research has shown that they live in a kind of “deformed time.” In this kind of “time-experience”, a day can feel like a week, and a week, a day. I recognize this time experience from my own grief work. How deformed time became for me in those early days of grief when I could envision no future. How separate and isolated I felt from those in “normal time.” Frankl observed that a concentration camp prisoner who saw no future robbed the present of its reality and lost any “opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself,” while someone who did maintain a vision of the future, could achieve the highest spiritual growth. If this kind of growth is possible in a concentration camp, it is certainly possible for the main character in this film and for each of us. But how do we get through deformed time, and what might we find on the other side?
It quickly becomes apparent if you delve into this film that a) it’s much more than a feel good romantic comedy b) the good feeling at the end has to do with a lot more than Phil taking up a new hobby or two to pass his never-ending day, becoming a better person, and making the best of a crazy situation, and c) Yes, I know it’s only a fictional movie, but there is a lot we can glean from it because the best kind of art always points towards truth- and this is one brilliant film.
With that in mind, here’s what I came up with:
1. Notice when you’re stuck without a visit from an angel named Clarence, or the Ghost of Christmas future, or finding yourself literally “stuck” in a time loop on Groundhog Day.
Phil Connors was already stuck figuratively – getting stuck in Punxsutawney because of a blizzard and road closures, and then waking up on February 2nd every morning, is just a literal confirmation of that. He is in fact, already in a time loop of sorts because people like him tend to list off the same complaints repeatedly to anyone who will listen. In the words of e.e. cummings, “Unbeing dead isn’t being alive,” and Phil Connors was not alive when Groundhog Day begins. He is isolated, resentful, and terrified of living a mediocre life. He feels stuck in his career, stuck without real relationships, and yes, even a future. “Someday somebody’s gonna see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don’t have a future,” he says at the start of the film.
Once you realize you’re stuck, and this is important, don’t go feverishly trying to get unstuck. It’s kind of like how they tell you in therapy as soon as you say, “I don’t want to be like my mother!” you’re setting yourself up to be exactly like her. So get comfortable in your “stuck” surroundings. It may prove a more necessary and valuable space than you ever imagined.
2. Face down your shadow and stop projecting it on everyone else.
Phil, like the groundhog Phil, really does have a shadow side of himself. The shadow side is the cynical, sarcastic, resentful Phil that we see doing a job he doesn’t like and takes little pride in, judging others like the small-town people of Punxsutawney he calls “hicks” and asking the bed and breakfast owner if she has cappuccino because he feels he is more sophisticated than a regular coffee drinker. Any psychologist can tell you that the seething kind of animosity Phil feels towards all of the townspeople is projected anger- he is actually angry at himself. In the small town he stares his own mediocrity and self-loathing in the face. As long as he kept moving- he was able to project his shadow on everyone else. But once he’s trapped living the same day again and again, a day where everyone else is doing the same thing as the day before and he is the only variable- he is forced to acknowledge his anger towards himself for the choices he’s made that have led him to this place. “Wherever you go, there you are,” someone said to me once when I was complaining about life in the ‘burbs. It’s not a chance to rid himself of his shadow, but to integrate it into himself so he can be a whole person. At the end of the film he isn’t a saccharine version of himself; he still has the dry wit and sarcasm. After he catches the little boy who falls out of the tree everyday, he says, “See you tomorrow…maybe.” And in the final scene when he suggests Rita and he live there, he adds, “We’ll rent to start.”
3. Keep a balanced, paradoxical perspective on life.
In one scene, Phil is drinking at a bowling alley with two other townspeople/alcoholics, one of whom tells Phil, “I bet you’re a glass half empty kinda guy.” Later, after he tries to explain the strange phenomena he’s stuck inside, Rita, Phil’s producer and love interest, says, “I don’t know Phil, maybe it’s not a curse- it just depends on how you look at it.” While the possibility of a different perspective of his external situation does open up a window, it isn’t ultimately the pathway to the changes we see take place internally in Phil. He doesn’t just become a “more positive person” and start seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. This is way too shallow of a reading, and in fact, life in general, and his particular predicament are not so easily categorized into blessing or curse. The situation he finds himself in is in fact utterly terrifying and totally miraculous at once. It’s uncomfortable and mysterious to find oneself in this place of tension, yet somehow, that small intersecting ground between terrifying and miraculous, becomes the sacred space where courage and hope are born. Rather than deny life’s mysteries and questions and just start keeping a gratitude journal, acknowledge both, and lean into the dichotomy.
4. “Unforget” who you really are and be like a little child.
A physician can’t help Phil; a visit to a psychologist is fruitless. Following imposed societal norms doesn’t reveal him to himself. But going in the opposite direction- rebelling against societal norms, overindulging in everything, and speeding while screaming, “It’s the same thing your whole life. I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore!” is also essentially a reaction, rather than a genuine representation of who he is. Materialism, wealth, women- none of it satiates. These are just the things Phil thinks he wants in a time loop where there are no consequences. Even when he uses his foreknowledge to orchestrate the perfect romantic day with Rita, it reeks of striving and societal pressures rather than being organically and internally brought about. The second time he tries to reenact building a snowman with her, we see the scene for what it really is- a “scene”-brutally forced, painful and contrived- a living cliche. As so many of us now edit our “identities” online in profiles and decide what persona to project from behind the screen, we must be wary of this.
It’s shortly after this scene that he begins a series of suicide attempts. “I’ve come to the end of me Rita. There’s no way out,” he tells her. And yet his first attempt is to drive himself into a quarry. A quarry is a rich source from which things are mined. It turns out the end of himself is actually the beginning. Free of the constraints and the labels we grown-ups impose upon ourselves, armed with the newfound energy he’d been spending projecting his shadow on others, Phil is primed to actually discover who he is. “Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making…The principal runs through life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it…Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours,” says C.S. Lewis. He finds he has a genuine interest in piano and poetry. He studies them no longer to impress Rita, but for the sheer enjoyment he takes in them. Why do we stop taking lessons for the most part as adults anyway? Who we really are is usually more like who we were as children. The Greek word for truth, aletheia, has been interpreted as “unforgetting.” While the rest of the town forgets the previous day with each new day, Phil is “unforgetting” who he was as a child. We can jump start our own “unforgetting” by taking an art class, learning about photography, or following along with our six-year-old’s piano curriculum like I am presently. When we lose preconceived notions of an “ideal life” or an “ideal self” who drinks cappuccinos and builds a snowman with a lover, we are no longer a character in a film; we make ourselves vulnerable to the organic and unexpected, but we also become newly human, genuinely ourselves, and open to wonder. We are reborn and we’re able to experience life with the freshness of a child’s eyes. When Phil comes out of the bed and breakfast at the end of the film to see the newly fallen snow on that first new day, all he can say is, “It’s so beautiful.”
5. Make life-affirming, empowering choices. You can fix a lot of things.
Free will is incredibly powerful. The weight of the choices Phil makes near the end of the film: to feed a beggar, catch a boy falling out of a tree, change a tire for a few old ladies, isn’t in the fact that he has turned over a new leaf and become “a good guy” in a feel good film. The weight we feel as viewers lies in the power we wield as human beings every single day, hour, and minute. At first, Phil realizes this on a more superficial level simply because the choices he makes each “day” are the only variable. Each day has already been lived and the same things will happen- the same people will speak the same words, unless- unless he does just one thing differently. But it isn’t until Phil tries this out on the beggar he passes by every day that he realizes the true power he has. After trying to help the old man stay warm by taking him to the hospital, the man dies. Phil can’t come to terms with the man’s death even though the nurse keeps telling him, “Some people just die. It was his time.” The next day, Phil tries to prevent the death by feeding him, and even performing CPR on him in what feels to me like the climax of the film. But this is one situation that Phil can not change. After performing CPR with all of his strength, the man dies, and Phil is left staring up at the sky in silence.
I would suggest, not that this scene demonstrates how little we truly do control to, ahem, a weatherman stuck in a town because of a blizzard he thought wasn’t going to hit, but rather how much we do get to choose. In contrast to the solid permanence of death, everything else seems simple to fix or change or survive. In the face of our absolute powerlessness in mortality, life is brimming with possibility. When my husband died, I understood the immutability of death for the first time, and with my inability to change it, I grasped my ability to change so many other things. Small things couldn’t upset me anymore. You lose your keys- you can get new ones made. You’re locked out of the house for a while- so what? You’ll call a locksmith and get back in. You lost your job? Well, that sucks- but chances are you’ll get another one. The passage of time and some wise choices prove every living predicament is not irreparable. Since Phil doesn’t really have the passage of time thing to work with, his choices and the power inherent in those become key.
6. Do the work set before you on this day.
Crucial to Phil’s ultimate arrival in a new day are his actions. We don’t think our way to the future. At a certain point, we stop getting different graduate degrees and start working. We stop thinking about creating a work of art, and we get down to the dirty work of making it- this is the incarnation. We take actions, even if they are small, and even if we can only imagine doing them for just one day. “I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime,” says a line from the well known “Just for Today” series of statements often spoken in AA meetings. Despite our emotions and apparent futurelessness, maintaining the daily tasks set before us will propel us forward. In one of my favorite passages, George MacDonald writes in “The Eloi,” “Fold the arms of thy faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go and do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feeling. Do thy work.” Phil learns to do this- not for moral reasons or for self-benefit. He has transcended those. As Viktor Frankl writes,
it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life- daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
A few of the tasks set before Phil are to catch a falling boy, change an old woman’s tire, give a choking man the heimlich maneuver. On the last day that we see take place, (and believe me many people have tried to calculate how many days actually have passed over the course of the movie- though we see about 38 actual days, it is generally agreed upon that a few decades have passed for Phil) Phil does his life’s work with gusto and clearly finds meaning in it. Ironically, he quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridges, “Work Without Hope,” one morning to the man who always greets him at the top of the stairs in the bed and breakfast at the start of his day. “Winter slumbering, dreams on its face spring,” he says with a smile. Although the speaker in Coleridge’s sonnet is despairing all of the changes he sees as winter gets ready for spring because his own emotions do not match up with the coming metamorphosis, Phil experiences the opposite. Seeing no signs of spring- he is nonetheless going about his day and what he calls later his “errands,” with hope. In fact, he seems to still be going to the square daily to do his weather report, even though he really doesn’t have to. His hopelessness has become replaced with a purposefulness that transcends pure morality. But how?
7. Love is the Answer. (I’m hearing this to the tune of “Mind Games” by John Lennon)
It’s not surprising that this film was chosen as the opening night feature for a film series at the Museum of Modern Art entitled, “The Hidden God: Film and Faith.” While Phil has no luck with a psychologist or physician, we never see him visit a priest, pastor, or spiritual figure. And yet, the look of knowing surrender he gives the sky after the beggar man dies, suggests an awareness of God Himself. I believe that ultimately, what helps Phil transcend his supernatural situation is also numinous. The kind of self-sacrificing love we see from him on his “errands”, giving without any expectation of return- because no one will even remember the next day what he has done- rises above a human’s capacity and dabbles in the divine.
After the first orchestrated “romantic day” with Rita, they are back in his hotel room and Phil mistakenly believes the day was a success. But when he tells Rita he loves her, she immediately senses the whole day was a set-up. “This isn’t love!” she screams at him. And it isn’t. It is the non-numinous human attempt at love, but it is far from the real thing. What she’s really pointing out is that Phil doesn’t even love himself enough to believe that someone might fall in love with him for who he is, apart from a perfectly planned day. On the last day of the film, while they are enjoying their un-orchestrated day together, he says something very different, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you.” This is the appreciate love that Lewis speaks of that “gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.”
Phil’s maturing love doesn’t stop with Eros. It also flows into loving his neighbors. Fred Rogers carried around a quote by Mary Lou Kownacki, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” While Bill Murray’s character originally saw the townspeople of Punxsutawney as “hicks,” the viewer can tell that by the end of the film, he genuinely enjoys them. He’s learned their stories and they’ve become real people. He’s learned, in what seems like the most isolating position, to live in community.
One of the truest and simplest statements I’ve ever read was in a book by John Stott: something like, “Everyone knows that love is the greatest thing.” But sometimes, we do forget.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you and I promise I am now wrapping it up because I too would like to move on with my life. Phil’s news coverage of the groundhog at the end of the film is completely changed from his first sarcastic take. He now says, “I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter,” and he means it. His words echo those of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Phillipians, “…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstance.” In fact, when a new day finally arrives, his first instinct isn’t to hightail it out of this little hick town, but rather to live there. “Let’s live here!” he says excitedly to Andie MacDowell, a far cry from the words he speaks in the beginning of the film: “Like I want to stay an extra second in Punxsutawney- please!” And in fact the whole appearance of the town has morphed for us as viewers as well. It is quaint and lovely rather than dull and mediocre.
By his last day in Punxsutawney, Phil has become a hero rather than an anti-hero. In a wonderful little book called “Falling Upward,” Richard Rohr outlines the patterns of the heroic journey- of which Phil seems to fit. I’m particularly interested in this last part, “The hero or heroine has found eros or life energy, and it is more than enough to undo thanatos, the energy of death…the hero lives in deep time and not just in his or her own small time.” “In fact,” Rohr asks, “I would wonder if you could be a hero or heroine if you did not live in what many call deep time- that is, past, present, and future all at once.” And so there you have it- Phil has made the journey through deformed time, and by the end of the film is living in this “deep time.” His one day he relives is truly at once the present, the past (yesterday), and the future (tomorrow).
Yes, life does at times feel Sisyphean, meaningless, repetitive, absurd. Some call these times an existential crisis, or a quarter-life crisis,(this needs to stop-you’re not old enough at 25 to have a crisis) or a mid-life crisis. But there are still things to be done, love to be shared, and hope to hold on to. As the film closed, I couldn’t help hearing the words my pastor speaks after the confession each week. I never tire of hearing them. “Our life is given back to us with hope, and every day is an opportunity to decide again, that this day shall not be like the other. We are reminded that as of this moment, a new person is being created. We are free to live fully in the present. The future is open…thanks be to God.”
*If you haven’t seen the film, please enjoy it as a weekend activity! Other recommended reading: Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl Falling Upward, Richard Rohr