“They say we’re young, and we don’t know. We won’t find out until we grow…”
Without aging a day, Phil Connors took decades, at least, to grow into a decent human being.
If you haven’t seen Groundhog Day in a while, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a light, playful comedy. Sure, it is that, but its playfulness belies a deeper philosophy about how best to spend our limited days. You can probably find as many lessons as it has days, but these are two that have stuck with me.
First: The only thing you can change is yourself.
Phil is experiencing that literally; he knows everything will happen today precisely as it happened yesterday, so if he wants anything to change, he has to do something different. And it’s true that each day is not precisely the same, because he makes new choices.
Now during Covid our own choices have been dramatically limited and for many life feels more repetitious than ever, but of course you and I aren’t reliving the literal same day. But with or without Covid, our habits can be so deeply ingrained, and our inertia so strong, that our days do end up nearly identical. We all fall into persistent patterns of thought and action, patterns we are rarely quick to recognize. In yoga they can be called samskaras, and the challenge becomes trying to strengthen our internal awareness enough to expand our perspective, and learn to see around our own conditioning. If we want something to change, we have to change ourselves.
In Groundhog Day, Phil’s quick reaction to his consequence-free existence is to revel in every hedonistic pursuit imaginable. (To be fair, I suspect mine would be too.) So even though his day doesn’t play out exactly the same, for a long while it maintains a consistent tone — if something doesn’t happen one way, it will probably happen another — because despite making marginally different choices, his internal patterns haven’t shifted. Phil hasn’t changed.
But eventually, after who knows how many years, he does change. He pays enough attention to finally realize that even though he can satisfy nearly any self-indulgent whim, none of it is fulfilling, and that trying to manipulate people is not the same as connecting with people. And that leads to the second lesson.
In a life devoid of consequences, where it’s reiterated every morning that nothing he does matters, what meaning Phil’s life has is only the meaning he can create. In that search for significance, he finds only one thing truly rewarding: Helping other people.
“Then put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb…”