Groundhog Day brings to mind various associations, including the fervent hope of this snow-buried Bostonian that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow this year and spring will come early. This may be the one good thing about global warming.
My primary association, however, is with Bill Murray as the lead in the most philosophical yet commercial comedy-romance movie ever made. For those who have been living in caves or remote mountain cabins, the plot assigns a cynical and egotistical reporter, played by Murray, to cover the Groundhog Day doings in Punxsutawney PA. He finds himself trapped in time, waking up on the same day over and over and over and over . . . which at first he experiences as a kind of hellish torment. As each identical 24 hours repeats itself in all its banality (though he alone is free to do within it whatever he wishes), it slowly dawns on him that his condition is not a torment, but an opportunity to practice getting life, and love, right. By the end he is forced into an empathy beyond ego that he is grateful to have learned, and in the process—it is after all a mainstream Hollywood production in spite of its art-house profundity—wins the heart of Andie MacDowell.
The film is such an obvious metaphor for ordinary life as we live it in day after day of trial and error, that little interpretation is required. At the same time it does illumine the opportunity that each new day presents to think or act or be a little bit more creatively. It has been said that life is not a dress rehearsal, but that is not altogether true. While there are many moments in every life when something happens that is irreversible, there are also even more moments when we are given the opportunity to try again—to be kinder, to listen more intently, to be more present to the wonder of what is passing by us and through us. Life is at the same time a one-directional arrow and a repetition of cycles, days and nights and weeks and seasons and years. As a teacher for three decades, I was particularly grateful for such repetition. I needed the privilege of trying again with each new crop of students to be more rigorous and compelling, friendly and fair.
On the international scene, the cycle of violent conflict can seem banally inevitable. Vietnam becomes a rehearsal for Afghanistan becomes a rehearsal for . . .? But time is not only cyclical, it is an arrow that contains the potential for two possible directions—descending toward the ultimate irreversible threat of nuclear holocaust, or rising toward some new possibility that we humans can make irreversible as well. We can learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis. India and Pakistan do not have to repeat the cold war cycle of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. with all its hideous risk and red ink. We can decide to abolish all nuclear weapons. The Middle East, like Middle Europe, can have its own non-violent Velvet Revolution.
Both whirled in cycles and carried forward on the stream of time toward the unknown, we do not have the luxury of Bill Murray’s reporter to practice our creativity within a narrow frame over and over, in a cycle of repeating time without its directional arrow. But like him we are caught in the imperative to evolve and change, not toward some perfect romantic outcome of boy gets girl, but simply toward survival. As Jonas Salk put it, “If we look at evolution as an error-making and an error-correcting process, if we are ever so much slightly better at error-correction than at error-making, we’ll make it.”
“How seldom,” said Emerson, “the present hour is seized upon as a new moment.” But sometimes a Gorbachev or a Mandela comes along, dynamically seizing the new moment and turning the miraculously improbable into the obviously possible. Within our own small compass of repeated days, we can each do the same. “All history,” Emerson also said, “is but the lengthened shadow of a great man.” What shadow might we ourselves cast, a sign of some new spring that, sooner or later, must come?