Back in 2006, I checked out Groundhog Day from the local Blockbuster and enjoyed it so much I decided to buy it from the store. I've since watched it a half-dozen times and never fail to be amused and touched. It's a fantasy comedy of sorts, in which an egotistic, crotchety middle-aged weatherman (Phil Conners, played by Bill Murray) is forced to drive to Punxustawney, Pennyslyvania with his annoyingly perky boss and their cameraman to do their news station's annual Groundhog Day segment. Conners is a generally unpleasant fellow whose primary occupations are complaining and ridiculing others. After spending the night in Punxustawney, the crew do their segment, but are trapped in town by a blizzard. The next morning, Phil wakes up to find it's Groundhog Day -- again. The same events which transpired the day before occur here: Phil hears the same jokes, the same banal comments, crosses through the same traffic, and is stranded by the same blizzard. Only when his behavior forces alterations do they occur.
Phil is stuck in Groundhog Day -- again and again. He has no idea what is causing this time loop, and his elation at being able to get away with anything (in a world of no consequences) quickly turns to despair when he realizes nothing he does or says will ever matter. No money stolen or friendships earned will endure. He tries to kill himself, only to wake up again and again at 6:00 a.m, Groundhog Day. His greatest disappointment, though, is his inability to win the affections of his boss, Rita. Though seemingly annoyed by her relentless cheerfulness, Phil is attracted to her and genuinely wants to be seen as something other than who he is: a jerk. He tries to become the kind of man she could love, but finds in the process that virtue and self-improvement are their own rewards. He comes to see the endless winter of Groundhog Day as a kind of gift, and uses it to learn to play the piano, to speak French, to create art. He makes the most of every moment and devotes himself to the people of Punxustawney, delighting in ordinary little kindnesses. In the process, he learns how to love something other than himself, and finally wakes up on February 3rd.
Groundhog Day is a genuinely funny movie, but I respond so favorably to because it has a philosophical point -- particularly to naturalistic sorts like humanists. While religions tend to make people participants in great psycho-dramas in which their actions play parts in a vast struggle between good and evil, to the naturalistic mind our actions have no real consequences in the long term. Hitler and Gandhi go to the same end, and oblivion will claim us all one day. Humanity may survive to expand throughout the galaxy, but eventually our clock will be punched for the last time. Like Phil, we are in an ultimately meaningless situation, but there is no reason to be miserable about it. We are alive, whereas billions of others are not. We can breathe in sweet oxygen, stare at the stars in wonder, enjoy the many pleasures of life. Reality may be Puxustawney, P.A., and not the glitzy dramatic metropolis we think we'd prefer, but there's plenty to enjoy. We can improve ourselves, find meaning in art and science, glory in little accomplishments, and find solace and joy in the company of friends and loved ones.
I know this from personal experience, for I was once a Pentecostal who believed in a great drama. That drama still excites Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world, but as I aged that drama depressed and angered me. I felt damned, and in my darkest hours decided to spite "God" and his twisted universe. I declared that I was going to enjoy life and do something with mine to help others. I took possession of my life and infused it with meaning and purpose of my own making. I pushed myself to be sociable, and made friends. I determined what I wanted a meaningful occupation, and left the factory for the university. I matured as a human being, and my self-empowerment has lasted for five years so far. When I read my old journals from that pre-humanist period -- with titles like "Jetsam's Course" -- I cannot identify with the person who I once was. I have found the joys of spring in the depths of winter, just as Phil did, and just as anyone can. Life is too short not to enjoy .