Wednesday, February 2, 2011

3 Life Lessons We Can Learn from Phil Connors: Groundhog Day Revisited

The Mayor of Punxsutawney and Groundhog Phil

Since it first came out in 1993, Groundhog Day has no doubt become an annual staple for movie buffs everywhere. It centers on bitter, selfish Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a weather man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phil travels to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities just as he does every year and winds up unable to return to Pittsburgh afterward thanks to a surprise blizzard.

Phil has long ago grown tired of this assignment and strongly dislikes both Punxsutawney and its simple, down home citizens, so he's not exactly happy to find himself stuck there. He's even less enthused to wake up the next day to find himself reliving February 2nd all over again for reasons unknown to both Phil and the audience. Phil unwittingly finds himself caught in a time loop from this point on. Every day he wakes up every morning on February 2nd and must relive the events associated with that day.

Though he has a normal recall of everything that happened on previous versions of that day, no one else does. Nothing Phil does during his day has any kind of impact on the future, since there essentially is no future. Therefore, he is left to decide what he is to do with eternity.

At first, Phil takes advantage of his situation and uses it to do things like commit robberies, seduce women, and abuse the local Punxsutawney residents. He even tries repeatedly to end the time loop in a number of ways. However, eventually Phil begins to use his unique situation to become a better person by learning new skills, helping people and getting closer to his co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell).

On the Spiritual Interpretation of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is certainly an excellently executed romantic comedy film. Bill Murray is at his best as the sour, sarcastic Phil and Andie MacDowell turns in a charming performance as kind, honest Rita. It's full of laughs and fun moments for certain. However, this is also a film that has a lot more going on than may be apparent at first glance.

Underneath the well-timed quips and larger than life characters, Groundhog Day is a poignant fable that can be said to address topics such as spiritual transcendence, the importance of self-improvement, and the satisfaction that only comes from performing truly selfless acts of kindness. For that reason, it has become a favorite of Buddhists, Catholics, and followers of other spiritual traditions for the way it touches upon many philosophies associated with them.

So what can we as viewers learn from this film and what important life lessons can we learn from following the adventures of the bitter yet likable Phil?

Phil showing off his newfound musical ability.
1. Self-improvement is key.

One of the most important lessons this film teaches us is the importance of self-improvement. Many spiritual people believe that we as humans were blessed with the wonderful minds that we have because we are meant to improve upon them while we are here. Those who believe in reincarnation usually also believe that how we conduct ourselves during this lifetime affects what we will become in the next lifetime and that we must repeat the life cycle until we accomplish what we were put here to do. People who believe in the concept of Purgatory similarly believe that the soul must be purified indefinitely until it is fit to move on to the next level.

These themes of cyclical progression could very much be said to correlate to Phil's indefinite repetition of the same February 2nd in the film. He is forced to do things over and over again until he gets them right and is only allowed to break the time loop once he fully and completely embraces self-improvement. He starts improving his mind by learning French, learning to play the piano, and learning to ice sculpt. Then he begins to improve his spirit by opening his eyes to what's going on in the lives of people around him and looking for ways that he can help them. He saves lives, does good deeds, learns how to truly connect with a soulmate, and more.

2. Live today as if it is your last.

Most of us take it for granted that there's actually a future ahead of us -- a tomorrow that will come after we are finished with today. However, Phil finds out very quickly what it is like to only have this one seemingly unremarkable day that we are living right now. He also eventually learns that there is no such thing as a day that is unremarkable and teaches us all just how much can be accomplished in 24 hours when we put our minds to making the most of every second.

Working toward the future is no doubt commendable and desirable. However, we should never allow ourselves to become so wrapped up in our future that we forget all about the present. Groundhog Day shows us what can happen when we take a minute to look around us and ask ourselves what we can do to make today count to the greatest extent possible. There is no guarantee that any of us will wake up tomorrow with a fresh chance to tell our families we love them, have incredible experiences, make friends, or make a difference. For that reason, we should do it today and every day from now on.

Phil with Rita, his co-worker and love interest.
3. Helping others must become its own reward.

Although growing more well-rounded as a person and learning to truly appreciate life in general were certainly critical factors in Phil's transformation into the new man he is at the end of the film, it is important to note which of Phil's lessons actually allows him to escape the prison of the time loop. Phil learns the importance of selflessness. Without a tomorrow, he does not have the incentive of reaping future rewards from being generous today, nor does he have to worry about there being any consequences for simply choosing not to help others. As far as he knows, he's stuck in February 2nd forever and will never escape.

Essentially, Phil is left with no other reason to do anything except for its own sake. This includes the acts of service he begins to perform for the people of Punxsutawney each time he has a fresh version of the day to fill. He saves the mayor from choking to death by being there to perform the Heimlich maneuver at the right time. He also saves a little boy from hurting himself falling out of a tree by making sure he is always there to catch him. The mayor and his wife are thankful to Phil for what he's done, but the little boy actually never even says thank you. Nevertheless, Phil always makes sure to perform both acts, because he learns that it is the act that matters, not gratitude on the part of the recipient or any other reward.

Those are just two of the many, many ways Phil chooses to help people in town. He also gets to know every one of the Punxsutawney citizens intimately and looks for ways he can improve their lives for the better, learning the importance of human connection as well. When the time loop is finally broken, Phil is a changed man that knows how to love, how to appreciate his existence and how to make the most of it for the better. This represents the ultimate achievement of spiritual enlightenment and its final reward -- true happiness and everlasting contentment of the soul.

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There is actually a lot more to this movie than I am really saying here as well. In fact, I can even dissect the progression of the story and the development of Phil's relationship with Rita even further to point out why everything that happens along the way is significant. However, I thought I'd just keep things basic for now and address the rest in a future post. In the meantime, feel free to let me know your own thoughts on the movie, whatever they might be.