“What would you do if you were stuck in a place and every day was exactly the same?”
Here in California we’ve been instructed to stay at home except for essential reasons. Kids are out of school. Some have online classes, some don’t. Churches are happening by online video. It doesn’t take long for Tuesday to be just like Monday which is just like Thursday…. So perhaps this is a good time to see what lessons can be found in a film about a man who relives a single day over and over: Groundhog Day.
When Phil (Bill Murray), a Pittsburgh TV weatherman is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day activities there, he is less than thrilled. This is the 4th time he’s done this. He hates the small town. He hates the whole Groundhog seeing its shadow concept. And he generally has contempt for everyone, including his enthusiastic and bubbly producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). After covering the story with a great deal of sarcasm, the three get stranded in town by a blizzard. When he wakes up the next morning, it’s not the next morning. Everything begins happening just like it did yesterday (which is really today—again). This happens over and over.
Okay. This is a classic movie, so I’m going to guess you’ve seen it. But now that COVID-19 has pushed us all into our homes, separated from the day to day routines that structure our lives, I suggest that Groundhog Day can allow us to look at these times, and especially how we react to them. As the story unfolds, we watch as Phil moves through different stages, and in the process grows to the point that he can move on in his life as a new person—which brings a new day.
At the onset, Phil is cynical and rude. He makes no attempt to hide his animosity from the people around him. When he wakes up on February 2 for the second time, he is confused. He reacts with disbelief and denial. He knows this can’t be happening, but it is. As he relives the day the first few times, he begins to learn little bits and make some subtle changes.
There comes a point where he knows he’s stuck in this day. He moves into a feeling of freedom and anarchy. He can do whatever he wants because in the morning it will all start over. There are no consequences, so why bother with morality? This quickly shifts to a time of anger and resentment. Which in turn evolves into despair. Even killing himself is no escape, because the yesterday morning keeps happening.
It is when he sees how empty his life is that he begins a new approach—one of altruism, caring for other people, and celebrating the joys of the day. He saves a life and saves a child from falling out of a tree. He learns French and how to play the piano. (Both of those are to impress Rita.) He becomes connected (over reliving this day so many times) with everyone in the town. They all like him, and he likes them. His life and his attitude have totally changed from what they were in that first February 2. What a difference a day makes (when you live it several thousand times).
This story clearly has a bit of Hindu and Buddhist thought involved in it. The whole idea of regeneration and living live many times is very tied to those Eastern religions. The film also seems to find humor in karma catching up with Phil from time to time. One of the key messages for the film is that we reap what we sow. When Phil treats people like trash, he gets no love in return, but when he shows love to others, his life is filled with their joy.
So, as we sit at home day after day, week after week doing the same thing, how will we react? How about the others in your house? I expect that, like Phil, most people will go through a whole range of emotions. There will be times of elation, of anger, of fear, of despair, of confusion. We can make our lives and the lives of those around us miserable. That was what Phil does for most of the movie. But we can also, if we open ourselves up to the needs of others, and open ourselves up to learning new things, discover that this time might be filled with joy.
A line from the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” came to mind as I thought about Phil’s final attitude: “Morning by morning new mercies I see.” Even in times such as these when we are all self-isolating trying to slow the spread of a dangerous disease, we can still find new mercies if we set our minds and hearts to that task.
Groundhog Day is currently streaming on Netflix. It is also available for rent on Amazon Prime.