It’s Groundhog Day again.
The eyes of the winter-weary world turn today to Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, where an annual ritual preserves the strange idea that what a groundhog sees at the break of day has some kind of meteorological implications.
February 2 has also come to mean that the eyes of movie buffs turn toward what the American Film Institute has declared to be the 34th best comedy of all time: Groundhog Day.
Bill Murray plays hard-bitten, relationally-challenged weatherman Phil Connors, who somehow ends up cursed to relive the same February 2 in Punxatawney – a place he can barely stand to visit once a year.
As Phil becomes aware that he keeps waking up at 6:00 am to the same song (Sonny and Cher’s I’ve Got You, Babe) and experiences the same circumstances day after day, he also becomes aware that no one else is caught in this time loop.
He alone knows the truth of his predicament. He alone can learn and change.
Everyone else starts from zero every new February 2, as if nothing were amiss.
Phil keeps meeting Ned Ryerson, the same annoying insurance salesman. He keeps showing up at Gobbler’s Knob with his TV crew to document whether the other Phil – the groundhog – will see his shadow.
At first Phil is cynical: sound“This is one time where television fails to communicate the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
But Phil has a tender heart toward Rita, his producer. She recognizes him, however, for the cad that he truly is and won’t give him the time of day.
The movie’s director, Harold Ramis, explained that Phil is caught in his time warp for something approaching 10 years. That would be 36,500 consecutive Groundhog Days.
One religious leader has described Groundhog Day as “the most spiritual film of our time.” Buddhists claim it embodies the essence of their beliefs. Roman Catholics have said it aptly describes purgatory – and it’s hard to argue that waking up every morning for 10 years to I’ve Got You, Babe is anything less than divine punishment (or, for that matter, seeing the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl every February).
So what happens to Phil Connors during the course of the film?
What we see in Groundhog Day is a progression of five stages of personal development to which most of us can relate.
First, upon discovering the astonishing truth that Phil can do anything he wants and suffer no apparent consequences, he succumbs to hedonism. He eats and drinks without boundaries. He gathers background information about a local woman so he can seduce her. He figures out how to rob an armored car. Nothing stands in his way. But hedonism is an old, old story that always ends the same way: sheer boredom. What Phil really wants is to have a relationship with Rita.
So he resorts to manipulation. He gradually comes to master all the details of all the circumstances of this one February 2. He mobilizes this information in a full-bore quest to compel Rita to fall in love with him. But real love can never be coerced. This phase ends in supreme frustration.
Phil gradually begins to drown in a sea of despair. Nothing matters. At Gobbler’s Knob he says to his TV audience, “I’ll give you a winter prediction. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” There’s no escape. Despite endless comedic and not-so-comedic attempts to commit suicide, he always wakes up the next morning…and it’s still Groundhog Day.
But now something changes. Perhaps his circumstances are a gift instead of a curse.
He enters a phase of self-improvement in which he attempts to grow. He learns how to play the piano and speak French. He begins to serve others. He shows up at various moments of what has become, for him, a totally predictable day in order to encourage, to intercede, and to save lives.
Slowly but surely, something radical happens to Phil. In the fifth and final phase, he surrenders to unconditional love. He begins to live – really live – on February 2. He cares for others but doesn’t require a thank-you. He always catches the same kid who falls out of the same tree. “You never thank me!” he shouts, as the boy runs off, safe and alive. Then Phil shouts, “See you tomorrow!”
Amazingly, he actually experiences his “goal” of having a relationship with Rita – but now it’s a relationship that she has chosen with a free heart. In the movie’s climactic moment, Phil says to her, “Whatever happens tomorrow, for the rest of my life, I’m happy now – because I love you.”
There is great wisdom in Groundhog Day. Most of us are intimately acquainted with hedonism, manipulation, despair, and ardent attempts at self-improvement.
Do we have to experience these phases in a particular sequence? No. Is it possible to get stuck in one or more of them for the rest of our lives? Tragically, yes.
Jesus’ profound message is that God has designed us to want, more than anything else, just one thing: the miracle of unconditional love – to give and receive the kind of love that we cannot earn and can never deserve.
How can such love be ours?
We must give ourselves to the One whose love has no boundary and no end – and which alone can fill our lives day after day after day after day.
In season and out, whether or not the groundhog ever sees his shadow, nothing can change that truth.
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