02 February 2011

Groundhog Day and Existentialism

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 .


CyberKitten said...

Groundhog Day is one of my movie guilty pleasures.... Maybe I shouldn't feel so guilty about it [grin]

Scott said...

Love the entry today!
Thank you for sharing your perceptions from 'Groundhog Day' and your own outlook and story.

I have a somewhat similar story myself. I, luckily, always felt something was not quite right with traditional religion and in my late teens decided that there was no place in my life for the kind of 'sense' religion made. Twenty some years later, with my two young children asking me questions, I decided to revisit those assumptions I had made earlier in life. What I found was that they were absolutely correct but that I had not quite carried the conclusion to its obvious end and finished those thoughts. Once I embraced an absolute denial of the opinions of others I could then get to the question of what was my opinion --the only question that really matters.

I like you am a naturalist, humanist and stoic. In embracing these ideas and philosophies I feel as if I have grown by leaps and bounds. Through these realizations and affirmations I have found a whole new outlook and caring for this life. I have realized my connectedness with everything around me and, in fact, with the whole universe. In finding my way to these realizations I count myself lucky. I have found gratitude, peace, reverence and a sense of responsibility to participate and give back in whatever ways I can.

Isn't it ironic that we have to loose religion to find these things? Or, perhaps we should just start with a better definition to begin with.

Here's to the spring in winter.

smellincoffee said...

@Cyberkitten: I watched it again yesterday and enjoyed it as much as ever. I get a little guilty pleasure out of that scene in which "Ned! Ned RYERSON" gets an 'armed welcome' from Phil, myself. (The "I've missed you...so much" welome is also funny, of course, in its own way...)

@ Scott: Thanks!

That's quite a gift from your children -- and kudos to you for embracing the questions rather than being satisfied with easy answers. Are you relatively new to the community?

Scott said...

I have been tracing the links through the Stoic and Humanist communities for the past year. Just signed up with blogger yesterday. :)

smellincoffee said...

@ Scott: It looks as though you've found a good many blogs already! "Being Human" is one I just found a month or so ago, and have enjoyed so far. I haven't found any forums for humanists in particular (though there are larger rationalist forums, like the Internet Infidels), so the blogging community has been most helpful. Are you aware of the Stoics yahoo group?

My name is Stephen, by the way.

Scott said...

Yes, thanks, although I have not posted or read much there. I'll stop by again, it has been a while.