Happy Groundhog Day. Did you see your shadow? Probably not if it’s still snowing.
As an annual observance, Groundhog Day is problematic, raising more questions than answers. With all due respect to Punxsutawney Phil, the whole thing seems rigged. What is the lifespan of groundhogs? How old is Phil? Or is this Phil XXV? And isn’t it just a little suspicious that he sees his shadow every single year? Can you recall any year when it was reported that our fur-lined friend didn’t see his shadow and therefore an early spring is right around the corner? Of course not. They don’t want to get our hopes up. They’re afraid we’ll descend on Phil’s burrow with pitchforks, demanding our money back — if we had any bets riding on this preposterous event. If I know Las Vegas, and I don’t, they likely lay odds.
If Groundhog Day is not an accurate prognosticator of seasonal transition, that means it must serve some other purpose in our psyches. Maybe it celebrates surviving January and the fact that there are only 26 days left in February (except in Leap Year). It’s been a while since we celebrated anything. January offers Hangover Day (Jan. 1) and Martin Luther King’s birthday, but the latter is more reverential than celebratory.
By the end of January, the day-to-day is killing us, so we pack February with diversions: Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, Oscar telecast, my son’s birthday (well, three out of four for the rest of you) and sometimes Mardi Gras (not this year). But Groundhog Day isn’t working for me.
So it must function on the metaphorical level. That’s how it works in the movie, Groundhog Day, by far the most spiritual comedy I’ve ever seen. Possibly the only spiritual comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s a very small cinematic subgenre. Bill Murray plays a narcissistic weatherman who is stuck in Punxsutawney, Pa., (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 get in films like this where the supernatural 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. 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. I saw it on a magazine in the checkout line at Whole Foods last Sunday. REINVENT YOURSELF! the cover proclaimed, under a smiling, healthy-looking model who had evidently already done so. Reinvention came into vogue when the economy collapsed and a lot of us discovered that what we’d been doing, day in and 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 — everyone except Wall Street and the mega-banks and the Republican Party, which seem to be doing just fine with the same old, same old.
Murray’s character reinvents, little by little, one Groundhog 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. Ever so gradually, he emerges from the burrow of his self-absorption and evolves. His altruism is pure because he has no hope of escaping Feb. 2. Eternity leads him naturally in the direction of betterment.
He has, in effect, achieved enlightenment, conquered desire, become a secular saint. He lives for today because that’s all he has. When 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.”
Maybe that’s the message of Groundhog Day. How’s life in your burrow? Maybe it’s time for all of us to wake up and emerge.
If you see your shadow, don’t be alarmed. No matter how long it takes, no matter how much snow is on the ground this morning:
Spring is coming.