Friday, February 3, 2017

"Today is Tomorrow" - The Lessons of Groundhog Day

Ever since I was a child, I was simultaneously terrified and smitten by the Twilight Zone. Some of those brilliantly twisted stories kept me tossing and turning all night. Throughout my tweens, I didn't not want to be alone in a room with a doll. Thanks, for the emotional scars, Talking Tina!

But Twilight Zone episodes aren't always scary. Many of them are dark; a few of them are comedic. All of them have a hook, some twist on reality. Many of the stories are built around a "What If" concept...

I'm telling you all this because the first time I saw Groundhog Day (way back in 1993) I felt it was a wonderful blend of Bill Murray and a brilliantly diabolic/comedic premise: What if you kept living the same day over and over?

I was a fan of the movie as soon as I saw the trailer. What a cool concept, I thought. I expected to be amused -- and I was. I still think this is Bill Murray at his sardonic best. But I also walked out of the theater with a sense of wonder. What would I do if I had all the time in the world? If there were no consequences? If I was forever stuck in the same place and time? These are fun questions to speculate upon every February 2nd.

But the movie, which I watched again today for the first time in about five years, means more to me now than ever before. As I watched it this time, so many life lessons really resonated with me. So without further ado, here's a handful of takeaways from Groundhog Day. 

#1) Excessive Pride Leads to a Downfall

When I first heard the word "hubris" I thought that it was that gross chickpeas mush you put on pita bread.

But that's hummus. Hubris is when we are more than a little too full of ourselves, and our arrogance gets us into trouble.

When we first meet Bill Murray's character, Phil Connors, he is soaking in hubris. He's a weather man who thinks he knows which way the wind is blowing (or in this case the blizzard) but he gets it all wrong.

And he doesn't just exude professional arrogance. His interpersonal skills are lame as well. He's more misanthropic than Moliere's title character.

When he interacts with Rita, his new producer (played by Andie MacDowell), he can barely tolerate her Pollyanna outlook. She is looking forward to the ceremonies of Groundhog Day. He counters her positivity with the proclamation: "People are morons."

He may be right. There are a lot of morons among us. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't love them any less because of it. And so the Universe teaches Phil a lesson in humility.

#2) Sometimes We Never Know Why Things Happen

Much of life is trying to figure out the mysteries around us. If we live long enough, we may unlock many doors, make many discoveries, learn many secrets.

But sometimes we ask "How did this happen?" or even more often "Why is this happening to me?"

And the Universe just keeps her mouth shut and has that silly grin on her cosmic face as if to say, "I'll never tell."

Why does Phil Connors get stuck on Feb. 2nd? Why that town? why that day? Why do things keep resetting at 6am? Why does there seem to be no escape? Even death fails to provide an exit.

Some fantasy stories use some trope to explain the magic. A Gypsy curse. A witch casts a spell. A kid's science fair invention goes horribly wrong. Somebody makes a wish before blowing out the birthday candles.

What I love about Groundhog Day is that we never learn the nature of the supernatural mechanism. Many of the big moments in life, both tragic and miraculous, are ensconced in that same veil of mystery. We might have our own philosophical guesses as to why something incredible and/or catastrophic happens to us -- but sometimes, like poor Bill Murray, the rhymes and the reasons remain elusive.

#3) Food Isn't the Only Thing That Feeds Us

The first time Groundhog Day repeats itself, Phil is deeply confused. A victim of severe Deja Vu. The second time he experiences dread. He seeks help from a medical doctor and then an out-of-his-league psychologist, and finally he ends the evening getting drunk and spending the night in a jail cell. When he wakes up back in his bed and breakfast, repeating Feb. 2nd yet again, he realizes that he has entered a universe where there are no consequences. So what does he do?

He gives into his hedonistic pleasures. He eats, drinks, and smokes whatever he wants. He uses the power of endless repetition to learn intimate details in order to seduce some of the local ladies. He steals a sack of money from a pair of bumbling security guards. He has absolute freedom. He does whatever he wants. 

And it does not satisfy him. He learns that he needs more than idle pleasures to lead a meaningful life. He also comes to realize that he needs love... but he pursues love selfishly (and pathetically) at first. 

#4) Desperation Is Unattractive

During one of the film's funniest sequences, Murray's character tries to figure out what makes Rita tick, hoping to make her fall in love in a single day, though in his world he may be trying and failing for months or years. He learns about her favorite drink, her career goals, her pet peeves, and her life long dreams... 

But he's doing all of these things because he wants her... He thinks he loves her at this point, but really he's just desperate for her to love him. 

But, as he says, he doesn't even love himself. And soon, he enters a cycle of slaps to the face. 

That's when he enters the dark period of his existence (and a slew of failed suicide attempts commence.) 

#5) Become a Person You Love to Be With

This movie is a romance on multiple levels. Sure, it's a romantic comedy with an imaginative premise. By the end of this fantasy, Bill Murray wins the heart of Andie McDowell and the seemingly endless repetition ceases. The beautiful February 3rd arrives miraculously and CHANGE HAPPENS. 

But the other love story is with himself. In the beginning of the movie, Disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors is egocentric, yet he cannot stand himself.  But now he is stuck in an eternity of Groundhog Days, he's stuck in a small town in which -- even though he gets to know everyone -- no one will ever get to know him on an ongoing basis. He's stuck with himself. He's the only one who can grow or change... and finally, he takes the opportunity to enrich his soul... 

through music... through poetry... through heroic deeds... through genuine compassion and friendship. He falls in love with the person he is becoming, and that in turn gives him the capacity to deeply love all those around him. 

Whether it takes a day or a lifetime, I wish that blessing upon us all.  

Happy February 3rd!

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