Groundhog Day

I love the movie Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. (And if you haven’t seen it, you probably don’t want to read this article until you have—warning, spoilers ahead!) This movie has become a bit of a classic among alternative spiritual seekers, and for good reason. I watched it again recently and realized once again what a deep commentary it is on life, and how well its story reflects certain teachings of A Course in Miracles.

Groundhog Day is the story of Phil, a cynical, egocentric weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. With his cameraman and his producer (Rita, Andie MacDowell’s character), he grudgingly covers the annual ritual, in which the town’s dignitaries determine whether Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s favorite weather-predicting groundhog, can see his shadow. If he can, the legend has it, it means six more weeks of winter.

Once the ceremony is over, Phil wants to leave right away, but a snowstorm keeps them in town for the night. And when he wakes up the next morning, he discovers something very strange has happened: It is Groundhog Day, February 2, the same Groundhog Day, all over again. This happens not just once but again and again and again. He’s the only one who experiences the repetition; to everyone else, each February 2 is a brand new day, and they don’t remember anything that happened on Phil’s previous repetitions of the day. But from Phil’s perspective, every day is the same February 2, and events unfold exactly as they did the day before.

Well, not exactly. For Phil himself is free to act differently each day, and thus change the course of the people and events he himself comes into contact with. What would you do if you had to live the exact same day over and over again, but could choose how to live it? The rest of the movie depicts Phil’s journey of transformation as he quite literally faces this question.

I see three broad phases in Phil’s journey. First, he goes through a selfish phase. He thinks of the situation like this: If there is literally no tomorrow, there are no consequences. Therefore, he can do whatever he wants. What glorious freedom! His attitude reminds me of those people who worry that the Course’s teaching about the illusory nature of the world might lead people to say, “If it’s just an illusion, why not just run amok?” Phil runs amok. He gets drunk and drives on the railroad tracks with the cops chasing him. He eats huge portions of decadent, fattening foods—why worry about weight or cholesterol? He spends lavishly. He manipulates women into going to bed with him—for him, everything is by definition a one night stand. It’s a selfish hedonist’s dream.

But eventually, the thrill is gone, and he enters a despairing phase. Sure, all that decadence was fun for a while, but when it’s just the same thing day after day after day, even the most exquisite pleasure loses its appeal. Phil begins to realize that wanton selfishness will never make him happy. It is empty and meaningless. All of this leads him to try to end his dilemma any way he can. He steals Punxsutawney Phil away, thinking that getting rid of the groundhog might get him out of Groundhog Day. When this doesn’t work, he tries to commit suicide, which does work—until he awakens again the next morning. Each day he tries suicide in a different way, only to awaken again to (gulp) yet another Groundhog Day.

Phil’s attitude in this phase reminds me of the “Real Alternative” section of the Course’s Text. This section speaks of how we eventually realize that all the pathways of the world are really the same, and none of them lead to happiness. It says, in what I believe is a reference to suicide, that “Men have died on seeing this, because they saw no way except the pathways offered by the world. And learning they led nowhere, lost their hope” (T-31.IV.3:4-5). Phil has lost all hope and tries to die, but there seems to be no way out.

But then, inspired by Rita, he begins to look at his situation a different way. Earlier in the movie, he had tried to manipulate Rita into going to bed with him, without success. But as time goes on, he starts to see how good and kind and loving she is, and slowly but surely falls in love with her. The two start enjoying each other’s company. He tells her about his repeating-day dilemma and convinces her that it is really happening (not so easy to do, because she has no recollection of what she heard or did in his previous repetitions; he has to start over from the beginning with her each day). One day she says to him, “Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” Perhaps, to use the words of the “Real Alternative” section, Phil might use this situation as an opportunity to learn a new way to live: “The learning that the world can offer but one choice, no matter what its form may be, is the beginning of acceptance that there is a real alternative instead” (T-31.IV.6:1).

This leads to Phil’s final phase, a loving phase. He begins to devote his days (well, his day) to being of loving service to everyone in the Punxsutawney community. Because he has seen the exact same daily events unfold countless times, he knows exactly who needs help, and he becomes the ultimate Good Samaritan. He is cheerful and upbeat. He has a kind word for everyone. He gives wise counsel to an engaged couple contemplating splitting up. He rescues a child who falls from a tree. He helps a homeless man. He saves a man from choking to death. And he also learns to love Rita with a genuine, selfless love. He is caring and sensitive to her. He learns how to play the piano, because she always wanted a man who could play an instrument. He asks her about her hopes and dreams. He no longer tries to get her in the sack.

Just as Rita suggested, Phil finally realizes that it really does depend on how you look at it. He finally realizes that with the right attitude, he is not cursed but blessed. Finally, at the end of a wonderful day full of love and helpfulness to others, Phil takes Rita in his arms and says what prove to be climactic words: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you.”

This, as you’ve probably guessed even if you haven’t seen the movie, is what breaks the spell. Love is the answer. When Phil awakes the next day, it is February 3. Groundhog Day is over. Phil’s journey is complete. He has transformed from an egotistical lout into a truly loving and generous man. He got the girl too (this is Hollywood, after all). And now, finally, a new life can begin.

It’s not difficult to see how this entire movie echoes the journey the Course says we are all on. For the Course tells us that even though our days look different in form, each day is really the exact same day in content: “Each day, and every minute in each day, and every instant that each minute holds, you but relive the single instant when the time of terror took the place of love” (T-26.V.13:1). We’re not just reliving Groundhog Day; we’re reliving Time of Terror Day. We try to tell ourselves it really isn’t so bad.

We try to “seize the day.” We each “run amok” in our own way. We seek worldly pleasures, and tell ourselves that if we can just manipulate things to go our way, we will be happy. But the older we get, the more we realize that the life we’re living is just “same ol’, same ol’.” Whether we get the things we want or not, it’s just an exercise in futility. As long as we continue to live egocentric lives looking out for number one, we will simply repeat the time of terror over and over again. And we will experience the same despair that Phil did, whether we’re fully aware of it or not.

But just as Phil did, we can choose to look at life with fresh eyes. It doesn’t have to be a curse. We can use our experience here to learn that there is a real alternative to the time of terror. Indeed, as a well known Course passage tells us, Christ uses all of our seemingly endlessly repeating trials and tribulations to teach us that there is a better way to live and we can choose that way:

Trials are but lessons that you failed to learn presented once again, so where you made a faulty choice before you now can make a better one, and thus escape all pain that what you chose before has brought to you. In every difficulty, all distress, and each perplexity Christ calls to you and gently says, “My brother, choose again.” (T-31.VIII.3:1-2)

What is the better way Christ wants us to choose? It is, of course, the way of love. He calls us to be truly helpful; He calls us to selflessly extend love in the way Phil finally learned how to do. He calls us to be miracle workers. This is the way to leave Time of Terror Day behind and live a new life — our true life — rooted in the Love of God we never really left.

Interestingly enough, after watching Groundhog Day, I received a striking piece of spiritual guidance that said, in essence, that I’m on the same journey that Phil was on. His path is mine. I need to set aside my own selfishness and become truly helpful to others. I need to learn how to genuinely love everyone I encounter. This guidance had such a profound effect on me that the very words “Groundhog Day” have become a little spiritual practice for me. I say these words when I’m tempted to be selfish, and they remind me that the real purpose of my day is to take a step toward becoming what Phil became, a step toward becoming a miracle worker who blesses the world with true helpfulness and love.

May we all use our “Groundhog Days” to discover the unparalleled joy of selfless love.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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