By Ken Trainor
This winter has reached epic proportions. How are you handling it? Grousing has limited value. Are you able to appreciate the beauty along with the inconvenience? Or has it gotten to you — the same thing, day after day after day. Are you sure it will never end?
That's the premise of Groundhog Day, which enjoys the curious distinction of being (arguably) the most spiritual film comedy of all time. Possibly the only spiritual comedy (it's a very small cinematic subgenre). Certainly the funniest spiritual comedy. Bill Murray plays a narcissistic weatherman, stuck in Punxsutawney, Penn., (actually Woodstock, Ill.) because a stubbornly silent deity seems to have willed it so. Murray repeats the same day, over and over and over again, with no instructions from helpful messenger angels like you normally see in films like this where the supernatural mysteriously intrudes.
After giving full vent to his appetites, he plunges deep into despair and tries to put himself out of his misery — over and over and over, to no avail. Finally, having no alternative, he accepts his predicament and begins to reinvent himself.
He doesn't call it that, of course. Reinvention is a recent invention. It came into vogue when the economy collapsed and a lot of us discovered that what we'd been doing day in, day out, over and over and over again, wasn't going to cut it in the New World Order. So we're all busy trying to reinvent ourselves — except for the 1 percent and their lapdogs, who seem to be doing just fine with the same old, same old.
Murray's character, Phil Connors, reinvents, little by little, one day at a time over the span of thousands of Groundhog Days, for all we know. There is apparently no statute of limitations on his sentence. Groundhog Day is his for eternity. Once he gives up all hope of escaping Feb. 2, he emerges from the burrow of his self-absorption and evolves. Eternity leads him naturally in the direction of betterment.
He has, in effect, achieved enlightenment, conquered desire, become a secular saint, or as the Buddhists call it, a bodhisattva. He lives for today because that's all he has. As he broadcasts his report on the groundhog for the buzzillionth time, he observes, "When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. Standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."
He becomes, at last, a real human being.
I'm not the only one who detects a spiritual undertow in this film, by the way. A quick check of Wikiquotes reveals a number of testimonials, including Alex Kuczynski's piece, "Groundhog Almighty," which appeared in the New York Times in 2003:
"Since its debut a decade ago, the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in Groundhog Day a reflection of their own spiritual messages. … Harold Ramis, the director of the film and one of its writers, said that since it came out, he has heard from priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and the letters keep coming. … Yogis, Jesuits and psychoanalytic practitioners have told Mr. Ramis that they feel a strong spiritual kinship with the message they see in the film. In the case of the psychoanalysts, he said, "It's the 'we keep reliving the same old patterns over and over again until we gain the right to free ourselves' thing."
According to Lewis Richmond in the Huffington Post in 2012, "Ever since the movie Groundhog Day came out in the early '90s, many people, especially Buddhists, feel that the movie holds some kind of profound existential message concerning spiritual practice and the spiritual path. … I doubt that the producers of the movie ever intended their lighthearted comedy to become a lesson in Buddhist teaching, but so it goes."
One film critic compared the groundhog coming out of his burrow to the resurrected Christ, a symbol of "the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime."
Maybe that's the lesson of Groundhog Day, which I just watched again the other night with my spirituality group. How's life in your burrow this winter? Maybe it's time for all of us to wake up and emerge from our tombs.
If you see your shadow, don't be alarmed. No matter how much snow is on the ground this morning, no matter how long it takes, this we know:
Spring is coming.