Carpe Diem via Ground Hog Day
Today is Ground Hog Day in the US. Who knows what strange history hides behind the annual practice of waiting around the burrow of an overgrown rodent with a mass of camera crews eagerly awaiting the weather prognosis for the next six weeks? It’s one of those American quirks like tailgate parties that you accept at face value. This is America. You don’t question such things. But while this column is usually reserved for saint’s bios and deconstruction of traditions, the theme of Ground Hog day brought to mind the film of the same name. Allow us the liberty for a short spiritual meditation on the theme using the film as text.
In the film, “Ground Hog Day,” the protagonist Bill Murray is an arrogant weather man who is forced to cover the annual event of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, where the citizens await the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that lets us know whether we will have six more weeks of winter or an early spring. By seeing Phil on the screen behind the camera doing his job of telling the weather with witty remarks thrown in, you would not know what an arrogant s-o-b he is. He treats his co-workers around him with disdain, esp. Andi MacDowald, his producer; he is bitter that he is only working at a local TV station as his ambition and grandiosity propel him to seek national news stardom. It is only while covering the Groundhog Day in the little town of Pennsylvania whose only claim to fame is this little sleepy creature that a freak snowstorm strands him there. However, something strange happens. After the first night of the snowstorm, Phil wakes up to the same day in a sort of psychedelic deja vu. He is then forced to live the same day again and again. No matter what he does he is stuck in Ground Hog Day February 2.
But something happens to Phil because of being forced to live the same day again and again. He becomes more sensitive to people’s reactions; he starts caring about those around him because for himself he knows how the script will go. When he gets himself out of the script, he can come out of himself to care about the homeless man that appears on the corner day after day. Because he is forced to repeat the same day, he realizes that his actions have no real long-term consequences. He has the foreknowledge of what people will say so he starts tailoring his actions to them. Ironically it is the act of living the same day again and again that makes him get it right. It is the opportunity he gets to change his soul, his outlook, and his reactions. He eventually falls in love with Rita, his producer, and that itself changes the day for him.
The thesis behind Ground Hog Day is a twist on the carpe diem philosophy. Yes, we have to treasure the day because it is the only one we have. But in our lives, esp. if you are like me about to enter middle-agedom, we have lived so many countless days they might as well have collapsed into one long one. All my years have become one long day. It’s the same script day in, dayout: get up 6-6:30, get ready, go to work, come back from work, make dinner preparations, help kids with homework, go to bed. My mood, my stance, my general conduct in major lines remain the same day in, day out. The great Sysiphysian struggle of living the same day, week after week, year after year, with full knowledge that our destinies won’t matter in the great scheme of things in the long run; that what we do in our daily lives even what in our heads might appear as “great” will be of little to no significance with the shifts of time–this is the thesis that this film wears inside out. If you could live the same day every day for the rest of your life (more or less this is what you do), maybe you could be forced to “get it right”; you could be forced to find the beauty and the meaning in its nuanced slopes in what otherwise is meaningless, even in the face of its fleetingness.
Meaning is made by the repetition of meaningless acts. Like that 3rd century monk who spent an entire year making straw baskets, which besides what he could not sell in the market, he burned in a bonfire when his cave became too cramped to keep them in. He kept at his work, painstakingly threading straw into baskets knowing that in the end it would end in a bonfire of vanities. This is what is required. Like an old strict schoolmaster life forces us to do the daily drills of verbal declensions to the point of sickness. This is all you get–puella, puellae, puellum, puella–ad infinitum until you make it meaningful. Boredom and monotony have a purpose–to teach us that the beauty is in the process, not the product. The beauty lies in the caress of the straw strands through the fingers drawn tight over the hubs of the basket; the creasings of the clothes disappearing under the smoky iron’s plate; the simmering of the tea cup just at the brink of boiling.
Now with the pandemic and the retreat into our own winter burrows, everyone is living this movie, over and over. Every single day has become Groundhog Day! House arrest? a groundhog on a spinning wheel in its cage? Fill in your metaphor for the Sisyphian existence you live here: ______________________
I am trying hard to find the meaning in this, after a whole year of living literally the same day. Here goes: I think God gives us the same day, the same prayer, the same-old same old to force us to pay attention to it. You cannot learn without a lot of repetition and human beings more than some other mammals (say dolphins or chimps for example) need much more of it. We are forced into the monotony of everyday existence to savor the day. To perhaps have the opportunity, like the actors who practice the same script over and over, to get it right. To tweak our lines, to change our tone, to learn something about ourselves and others. The twist on the theme of “seize the day” is not that it will go away and that it is short, but that in the reality of modern life with all its drudgery and mind-numbing sameness, it will be the same day, for the same kind of person, for so many centuries. This is it! This day, there is no other; there will be no other either. It’s the same slop of Irish oatmeal in the morning. And you will be required to eat it and like it and be grateful for it on top of that too. To appreciate the day for what it is–not what it could have been or could be–or the dream of a day we might have in the future, but to look at the day squarely in the face with all its pimples, pock marks, creases, and say,”Thank you God for this day. It’s you again.” Living the day on perpetual loop forces us to look into its wrinkled forehead and dark circles. Deal with the disappointment of not having the day you think you deserve. The day in your hand is better than the day in your head.
And maybe it’s not the day itself that matters. It can be the same as it ever was. But what matters is you. How you change in relation to it. It was not that Phil’s day changed in the movie, but his attitude to it did. This is what we are supposed to do. Practice the same day to get it right; to become the people we were meant to in it: patient, kind, caring, responsible, grateful, humble. As Aristotle said, “Perfection is the sum of habitual actions practiced every day.” May this same boring day be the practice for our spiritual perfection.
Happy Ground Hog Day!