Important Life Lessons from 'Groundhog Day'
On this hallowed day, as we acknowledge Punxutawney Phil's prediction that there will be six more weeks of winter, we should also appreciate what is arguably Bill Murray's greatest contribution to American filmography: Groundhog Day. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2006, which means that, as long as the Library of Congress remains standing, Groundhog Day will reside in its vaults. In celebration of that fact, I would like to explore a life lesson that Groundhog Day offers to viewers of all ages: how to survive the trivialities of life without losing your mind.
Groundhog Day has particular cultural significance when it comes to adjusting to the workplace. Many jobs today are repetitive, dull, and potentially dehumanizing. Films have been offering commentary on this aspect of the American workforce since the first half of the twentieth century, notably with the release of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. In this short clip from the film, released on January 1, 1936, Chaplin plays a clownish worker on an assembly line, performing the same clamping move on each metal plate that passes him. When he does find a brief moment of respite in the bathroom, his boss appears on a gigantic video screen to tell him, "Quit stalling, go back to work!"
Groundhog Day plays off this same feeling of frantic repetition without growth. No matter what Murray's Phil Connors does in the film, he will wake up in the same small town in Pennsylvania to the same clock radio playing Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe." His initial response is to live every day into the ground without any fear of future retribution. As he grows more and more dissatisfied, however, his despair culminates in a series of desperate suicide attempts. The most iconic moment is, of course, when he kidnaps Punxutawney Phil and plunges to his flaming death in a gravel pit.
While none of us (hopefully) are living in a deep existential rut created by an unending time loop, we have, perhaps, experienced flashes of fear that our days are passing with striking similarity. There are moments in every life that can be viewed as utterly trivial and mundane, and David Foster Wallace spoke to this concept in his famous 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College, "This is Water." The following video is an edited version of the speech, but it captures his main inspirational message; we are the editors of our worlds, and our selected mental filters (yes, this was before Instagram) determine the way we react to all events. He states:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
Instead of focusing entirely on ourselves, we can extend our mental scope to those around us. Like Bill Murray's character Phil in Groundhog Day, we can reset our mindsets to view the mundane moments through a different light. We can use each moment to collect details and grow as individuals. Wallace explains:
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
While Groundhog Day doesn't suggest that Phil attains a "mystical oneness" with the town of Punxutawney, he does undergo a serious shift in mindsets once he realizes the impact he can have on the people he encounters, day in and day out. He learns French, he saves a diner at a restaurant, and he delves deeply into the details of the town. It is only when he uses his time to learn about and impact others that he earns the affection of his previously unattainable colleague, Rita. Winning her heart yanks him out of his time rut, as it marks the pinnacle of his complete change in personality.
By revisiting the classic film Groundhog Day on this auspicious Groundhog Day, we can celebrate the message it imparts as we face six more weeks of winter. Whether it's salt sticking to your boots or a sneaky patch of black ice, we can survive obstacles by reminding ourselves and others, "I Got You Babe."