It seemed like an innocent diversion on yet another day of the “stay at home” lifestyle that has become painfully familiar to so many of us. It was Groundhog Day on the calendar, so it seemed appropriate to watch the 90’s movie of the same name, starring Bill Murray. I thought it would supply some laughs, but I didn’t know that it would offer me some clues about getting through the next few months of this global ordeal.
I recommend lots of films to people in my work as a therapist, but I never imagined Groundhog Day would join the list. Even less likely seemed the possibility that Bill Murray (or at least his character in this film) would become my teacher.
In case it’s been a while, and you have better things to do with your time than going to watch it again…
Bill Murray plays narcissistic weatherman Phil Conners, who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the annual Ground Hog day festival, but finds himself mysteriously stuck in some type of time warp that causes him to re-live the same day over and over again. (Hmm…that might feel familiar) Nothing that Phil does impacts the future because he goes to bed and wakes up on the same day (February 2) each time, with everything starting again as if the previous day never happened. He wakes up at the same time, at the same B&B, has the same conversations with locals, and covers the same ridiculous Ground Hog day event.
It’s a curious thought experiment; what would you do if you had to live the same day over and over again? How do we cope with living in a world that feels not just boring and repetitive but unchangeable?
After Phil’s initial frustration about being stuck in this weird time warp, he decides to exploit his situation, as most of us would. If there are no consequences to his actions, he can do whatever feels good. So he seduces, takes risks, gorges himself, and uses the knowledge he acquires by getting endless do-overs to manipulate and take advantage of other people.
But soon after Phil despairs. Consequence-free seems like a good thing until it it’s not. To be unable to move forward in your life or build tomorrow on what happened today is actually a kind of hell. And in his despair, there is a form of grief that takes place, a recognition that he cannot live the life he would choose. (More on this in a future blog post) Phil laments, “of all the days I could have been stuck living over and over, why this one?” He recalls a day he spent on a Caribbean island where everything seemed perfect, and he wonders why that day couldn’t be his repetition instead of covering a ridiculous story in small-town Pennsylvania in the bleak midwinter.
While I write all this from a place of relative privilege and safety, I admit that I’ve had lots of days that haven’t felt like one I want to live over and over again during this pandemic. While others are suffering in much more significant ways than I have because of COVID-19, I think most of us have at least struggled to feel that our lives in the past year aren’t exactly what we would choose if we had our own way. And while that doesn’t compare to losing a job, or life savings, or a loved one, it’s still a form of suffering nonetheless. The psychologist Adam Grant has labeled it “languishing” the absence of well-being. Whether we’re dealing with substantial losses due to COVID, or even just a prolonged dissatisfaction with how life is, most of us can identify with Phil that there are other places and more interesting things we’d rather be doing. The question becomes how we will respond to life being different than what we would choose.
And here’s where Bill Murray becomes our guru for getting through this aspect of the pandemic.
Over time, Murray’s character Phil Conners begins to accept his circumstances. His earlier efforts at escape cease. After mourning the loss of his normal life, he begins to approach each day, not with resignation, but with the kind of acceptance that manifests in efforts to make the world better, even when it has no long-term consequence. Phil pays careful attention to all the things taking place in Punxsutawney on February 2nd. He knows the precise moment when a boy will fall out of a tree, or a car full of old ladies will break down, or a couple will have a relationship-ending fight. He moves towards acceptance when he recognizes things for how they are and sees what he can do to be helpful.
It’s often been unclear to me how acceptance and resignation differ. Personally, I think I’ve lived as if these two concepts were identical, but Guru Bill has shown me how they differ. This is good, because I’ve been wrestling with and trying to tease apart acceptance and resignation for a long time. I even thought deeply about this on the steps of a Buddhist temple in Thailand but found no enlightenment. I guess insight often comes from unlikely sources.
If Phil were resigned to his situation, he would have stopped trying to make anything different. He would have stayed in bed and watched Netflix all day. Instead, he accepts the givens of his circumstances but chooses to see and act in ways that will improve whatever can be improved, even if only temporarily. We can so easily despair when we look at the problems of our lives and slide into resignation.
“If I can’t avoid suffering or dying, why bother doing anything at all?”
“If I can’t fix the environmental catastrophe we’re on the edge of, why bother composting?”
“If we’re all stuck in COVID languishing for several more months, why bother putting on pants or making a meal, or being productive, or even trying to find joy?
The posture of acceptance asks us to consider that life won’t always give us the days or the circumstances we want but invites us to respond with our best anyways, instead of holding out for something better down the road. It is, in a sense, a paradox. Coming to terms with certain aspects of reality and not trying to change them while looking at what choices we do have and being intentional about them. Acceptance is a choosing of our response, not our circumstances. Sometimes that response is limited to our mental attitude, and while that may seem like a small thing, it’s likely the most important thing. Resignation, on the other hand, is choosing to do nothing (or very little) because we don’t like the circumstances that we can’t control. It’s the curling up in a ball and waiting for things to change response. I’m not criticizing it; rather, I’m naming it as something I too often do in my own life.
In the film, Phil begins to do good for other people in spite of the fact that it might not produce enduring change. His face maintains its typical Bill Murray-esque deadpan, but his actions demonstrate the inner transformation that’s occurred. In a rather profound way, he has refused to despair and chosen instead to act, even if in seemingly small and insignificant things. The philosopher Albert Camus called this “courage”. The decision to look at all the things that make life so demotivating and choose to do good things anyway. It hinges on an act of faith that making things better even temporarily is better than resignation, better than being “dis-couraged”. You may not be able to fix things permanently, but you can at least make them better now.
(And… our small acts may not be so inconsequential after all. We have polluted our world with the accumulations of billions of small acts, so perhaps we can reverse this with billions of small acts shared between us.)
Now, much of this may seem obvious to you; “make the best of situations” appears like very commonsensical advice. Nobody needed Bill Murray’s film or a smart-aleck shrink to tell them that. Perhaps, but how many of us do this? I’m rather more prone to the sophisticated adult tantrum response myself. Quietly seething that this thing or that thing isn’t quite to my liking. Giving in to despair because, well, if I can’t be on the tropical vacation I wanted to be on today, then I’m just going to spend the rest of the day indoors surfing the web and being curt with my wife and kids. But how we go about making the best of our circumstances or accepting rather than resigning isn’t always so clear or obvious. And, even if we know that it would be better to go for a walk than finish off the Costco-sized bag of Doritos, our resignation often saps us of the energy to do what’s good for us.
Even if the many small things you or I might do today in the midst of yet another COVID lockdown don’t seem very important, The movie Ground Hog day teaches us one further lesson about acting despite our temptation to despair. What changes in the movie is not the people of Punxatawny; they still keep falling out of trees, and having flat tires, and breaking up. But Phil, in the process of becoming focused on caring for the people of this town in his small and apparently fruitless acts, becomes transformed himself. In his story, we see that he becomes able to authentically love his romantic interest rather than merely seeing her as a conquest. In our stories, it is similarly our acts of hope and goodness, love and sacrifice that change us as people. We grow, even if nothing else in the world seems different. You may have minimal capacity to change the world outside of you, but you have an enormous ability to change the world inside of you with the decisions you make on a daily basis. Our acts of love and care are formational in who we are becoming as people. Yes, the pandemic will still be here tomorrow, and many more days ahead. But how we respond to our circumstances will at least change us, for better or for worse.
It’s not that sitting on the couch watching Netflix is the wrong way to get through this. For me, it was a movie that brought an opportunity to see life more clearly. But if we learn from Bill Murray, it seems that the repetitive Ground Hog day-ish existence many of us are feeling trapped in during lockdowns can be faced with the courage to look for the small things we can do each moment to make things better. In asking this question and responding, we can get through this hard time, and we just might become more loving people.