February 2 was Groundhog Day. The groundhog saw his shadow and we have six more weeks of winter. [In California we’ve noticed, but rather than winter we call it the “annual state budget impasse.”]
in any event, one of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day.”
Now, “Groundhog Day” is a seemingly light comedy starring Bill Murray as an arrogant, self-centered weatherman exiled to Punxsutawney, Pa. for the annual rodent festival that is the movie’s title. The exile becomes apparently permanent as Murray’s bore (named Phil, like the groundhog) finds himself reliving the day over and over – although no one else is — or conscious that Phil is.
Along with the humor, however, the movie actually asks a deep question: What would you do if you had all the time in the world?
Murray’s character puts it differently: “What if every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?” He initially answers his own query with a litany of deadly sins.
As this approach — “I don’t worry about anything anymore. I don’t even have to floss.” — wears thin, Phil gets depressed. Asked for the weather forecast he replies, “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”
He tries suicide knowing it won’t stick: “I’ve been killed so many times I don’t even exist.” About God he muses, “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
He learns the piano, helps stranded elderly women, saves the mayor from choking, is nice to co-workers, catches a boy falling from a tree, and spends the evening with a vagrant, on what turns out to be that man’s last night on earth.
He also has fun — a bachelor auction and snowball fights are among the diversions.
And he courts his producer, Andie MacDowell: He learns about her, pays attention, and well … you probably know the end. And in the end he has learned what to do with all the time in the world. (No, it’s not just “court Andie MacDowell.”)
As I began to mull this, the objection immediately came to mind: yeah, but he lived the same day over and over. He didn’t get sick or have to earn a living. In fact, he didn’t have to live, at all.
But he did. He just lived it slow. Murray’s character saw our 78 RPM life spin at 33 … or even slower. It was a test and a gift, a challenge and a chance. He saw what we need to see — each day is so crucial. Something we often see only after we live thousands of them.
I see how this is also an instructive thing about Jesus’ miracles, which work in a sort of reverse. Christ turned five loaves and two fishes into food for a multitude — speeding up a natural process He himself had created, and living many days all at once. And Lazarus came forth, speeding up another process.
But these “fast-forwards” show what is possible for us in the future if we begin in the here and now.
It didn’t take 5,000 days to woo Andie MacDowell, or maybe it did. Yet 5,000 days is less than 14 years. How long do you plan to be married? It’s time enough to learn the piano.
Murray’s meteorologist also comes to recognize that the value of the present moment is often to be found in interaction with, and focus on, other people. He begins to care. As C.S. Lewis has written:
“All day long,” he says, “we are helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Phil found that having all the time in the world meant nothing if he lived for himself. Learning to play the piano is loving something besides yourself. Paying attention is loving someone besides yourself.
This can only happen day by day because we live only in the present moment. At the same time, we must be mindful of the effects of many years of doing the same thing.
Mother Theresa bathed tens of thousands of beggars. One at a time.
This concept holds true in writing, too. A mother introduced her six-year-old son to a famous playwright by telling the boy, “He’s a very good writer.”
The child replied, “Can he do a W?”
The play’s the thing, but first you have to know how to do a W.
What would you do if the people you know were the only ones on earth? They are.
What would you do if you had all the time in the world? You do.