Today is that auspicious date, Groundhog Day. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its burrow on this day and sees its shadow, it gets scared and runs back inside, predicting six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring. It’s also the title of a profound spiritual film. You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Seemingly trivial, both the film and the date have many layers of significance. And not just because it’s my birthday.
In the film Groundhog Day, writer Danny Rubin and co-writer and director Harold created a powerful spiritual parable, wrapped in a subtle comedy. Hundreds of spiritual leaders from many faiths have used it to illustrate talks, classes, talks, workshops, and panels. The theme is like A Christmas Carol, a tale of redemption and transformation when a selfish man learns to open to his heart and other people. Here, it’s also very funny, which helps transmit the message to enjoy on many levels.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburgh weather forecaster, absorbed in his own discomforts and oblivious to other people. With his producer Rita and cameraman Larry, he goes on assignment to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Here, "Punxsutawney Phil" — a real groundhog — comes out of his hole to reveal how much longer winter will last. Connors believes he's too good for the assignment, and for Punxsutawney or Pittsburgh; he’s on his way to bigger things.
He wakes up in his bed-and-breakfast the next morning to the announcer exclaiming, “It’s Groundhog Day!” and Sonny and Cher singing “I got you, Babe.” He covers the story at the festival on Gobbler’s Knob, and, in true Bill Murray style, deadpans, “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather”. He leaves after the story to head home as soon as possible, but unfortunately, a blizzard stops him at the outskirts of town. A state trooper explains that the highway is closed, asking "Don't you watch the weather?”
Reluctantly returning to Punxsutawney, Connors spends another night in the bed-and-breakfast run by the sort of un-hip folks he considers hicks. The next morning, the clock radio in his room goes off and he hears again the voices of Sonny and Cher. At first, he thinks it's a mistake by the hick radio station. But slowly he discovers it really is the same day all over again. Everything that happened to him the previous day -- the man talking to him on the stairs, the high school acquaintance stopping him on the street, the ritual of the groundhog -- it all happens again. And, once again, due to the weather, he is forced to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, it is the same day again, with the same groundhog festival and oncoming snowstorm.
And on it goes, day after day, like a broken record as Phil finds himself trapped in what seems to be a time loop. But he finds if he changes his behavior, people will respond to his new actions. This perception opens all kinds of possibilities for playing with the unfolding of events. With each "new" day, he alone remembers what happened in previous editions of the same day. At first Murray's character responds with bewilderment. Then he begins to indulge his adolescent self. He shoves cigarettes and pastries into his face with no fear of love-handles or lung cancer. He goes on a drunk-driving spree. He uses his ability to glean intelligence about the locals to seduce women.
As the days pass endlessly into the same day, Phil develops somewhat of a purpose in life: learning everything he can about Rita, so he can pretend to be her ideal man and seduce her. When that fails, and his efforts net him slap after slap, day after day, his despair deepens, and it’s no longer fulfilling to answer the Jeopardy questions before Alex Trebek can ask them. He begins to try to kill himself. He takes a plugged-in toaster into the bath, jumps off a building, and drives off a cliff with a kidnapped Punxsutawney Phil at the wheel. But not even death can free him: he continues to wake up in the morning to Sonny and Cher.
In desperation, he reveals his plight to Rita, and she stays with him. They sleep together – literally fall asleep together. Once again, he wakes up alone in the same day. But, enriched by this experience of intimacy, and because someone does seem to actually like him for who he is, he finally figures out a constructive response. As groundhog Phil sees his shadow, the man Phil was forced to confront his shadow self, all his negative aspects, and choose a different path. Slowly, he goes through a transformation.
Phil begins to live his life in the day allotted to him. He takes control of circumstances. He takes piano lessons. He reads poetry, at first to impress Rita, but then enjoys it. He learns how to be an ice sculptor, the perfect art form since everything will have melted away when he wakes up. He also discovers that there are some things he cannot change. The homeless man whom Connors scorns at the beginning of the film becomes an obsession as the old man dies every day. He calls him “pop,” buys him a meal every day, and tries to save him, but never can. His heart has been opened, and his compassion for the old man transfers to the living.
Now, he begins to use his knowledge of how the day will unfold to help people. Knowing that a child will always fall from a tree at a certain time, he is always there to catch him. Knowing that a man will choke on his meal, he is always at a nearby table in the restaurant to save him. He daily changes a tire for three elderly ladies. Once isolated from society, Phil becomes a beloved local hero. He sees the glass as half full and the day as a form of freedom.
As he expresses in a TV speech for the umpteenth ceremony of the coming out of the groundhog: "When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. Standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."
By the end of the film, Connors is no longer obsessed with getting Rita. He's in love with her, without reservation or hope of his affection being requited. Finally, Rita falls in love with the good person he has become, and again they literally fall asleep together. With her love, and when he blesses the day he has just lived, the day is taken from him. When he finally wakes on February 3rd, the great wheel of life is no longer stuck on Groundhog Day.
We might not experience the same day over and over – or do we? Do our days sometime have a repetition of sameness, of same old themes and thoughts? While many of us go semi-automatically through most of our (very similar) days, he is forced to stop and treat each day like a world onto itself and decide how to use it. He comes to see that we’re here to do something more than just get through each day. He wakes up, the beginning of all true spirituality.
This view of Punxsutawney is purgatory, from which Phil is released by shedding his selfishness and committing to acts of love. But he doesn’t find redemption or liberation by turning away from the world. He does the opposite, as he opens outward to community, to fellowship, to love the hicks and their values. In the end, he undergoes a breakthrough to a more authentic self in which intimacy, creativity and compassion come naturally - a self that was trapped inside him. What Phil slowly realizes is that what makes life worth living is not what you get from it, but what you put into it.
The film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more. Countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches including deep existentialist themes. The New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s film series on "The Hidden God: Film and Faith" opened with Groundhog Day.
Many Buddhists champion the film as illustrating breaking free of samsara, the circle of birth and rebirth, when he surrenders his ego and begins to practice service to others. Phil exemplifies the bodhisattva, or awakened being, devoted to saving all sentient beings. Naturally this goal is impossible, yet it is also impossible for the bodhisattva, or Phil, to refuse the challenge.
Phil’s real success lies in breaking free, with freedom from his restricted personality and from his restricted day. As his wisdom deepens, Phil realizes that not all restrictions are oppressive. Some, like those of compassion and care, are the place of freedom itself. What is so powerful about Groundhog Day is that it lets us experience what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. When we move beyond resentment over our life conditions, engage with what we love, and connect with compassion to others, our lives become a more meaningful and rich experience.
I have a passion for stories and inspirational literature.