Today is February second. In the United States, it is the trivial holiday of Groundhog Day. This day commemorates groundhogs’ tendency to come out of their burrows in early February. According to legend, if they see their shadow when they emerge, there will be six more weeks of winter, but if they do not, there will be an early spring.
Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell star in a 1993 movie based on this holiday and it is one of my favorite movies. It redefined the term “Groundhog Day.” Murray plays a Pennsylvania weatherman, Phil Connors. After Phil arrives in Punxsutawney to report on the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, he finds himself stuck on February second. No matter what he does, when he wakes up the next morning, it’s always six a.m. on February second. The movie shows Phil’s activities for 38 days, though how long he was actually stuck on that date is debated, with estimates ranging from 8 to 34 years.
After his initial disorientation, Phil soon discovers that his day “resets” no matter what. If he ends the night locked in the drunk tank, he wakes up back in his hotel bed on Groundhog Day. This leads to a string of hedonistic days, but eventually Phil tires of this. He feels trapped and wants to escape, but not even suicide can free him from his prison.
Phil is stuck with himself in the same day, over and over again. While it provides for some comedic moments, especially regarding his thwarted attempts to bed his producer, Rita, I see this movie as a tale of redemption.
Phil makes a shift partway through the movie from narcissism to self-improvement. Instead of focusing solely on pleasing himself, he starts to focus on helping others. His thorough knowledge of all activities in Punxsutawney on February second aid this effort.
The salvation metaphor is almost overt. Only by serving (Dare we say, loving?) others is Phil released from his narcissistic prison. The movie gives a strong message on the second commandment while totally ignoring the first. In so doing, it makes the metaphor more powerful for its subtlety and keeps the movie from being preachy. (Christian filmmakers and authors, take note.)
Through his efforts, Phil gives up his unwholesome interest in Rita, and in so doing, becomes more intriguing to her. By not focusing on her in a narrow way, he becomes a man she could actually love. The scenes of his “final” Groundhog Day show a generous, compassionate Phil.
This side of death, we do not face the prison of immortality without the possibility of redemption as Phil did, but this somewhat absurd story pokes us gently with the same question that tacitly haunts Phil: “What am I going to do with this day that I am given?” Through a process of elimination, Phil realizes that a program of virtuous self-improvement is the best answer. We could do much worse.
On a related note, I read this prayer this morning from Humility of Heart.
O my God, true light of my soul, keep alive within me the remembrance of my death. Tell me often with Thine own voice in my heart that I must die, perhaps within a year, perhaps within a month, perhaps within a week; and thus I shall remain humble. In order that the thought of death may not be unfruitful to me, excite within my soul now that knowledge and those feelings which I shall have at that last hour of my life when the blessed taper is placed in my hands in the day of trial. Make me know now as I shall know then what vanity is, and then how can I ever be arrogant again in the face of that most certain truth?
Though we may feel like we’re in Groundhog Day at times, we would do well to remember that we only have a handful of days and they will all be weighed on judgement day.