Groundhog Day Post #1: The Eternal Return of the Same
Extended lockdowns have led to a lot of allusions to the film “Groundhog Day”. For those too young to remember the 1993 film, Bill Murray played Phil Connors, an irascible television meteorologist sent to a small town (Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania) for the fourth time to cover the traditional ceremony around the emergence of Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) from hibernation. According to American folklore, if February 2nd is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, it will return to its hibernation hole, in anticipation of another six weeks of winter.
After filing his report, Connors finds himself stuck overnight in Punxsutawney, due to a blizzard he had failed to forecast. Worse: when he wakes up the next morning, and every morning after that for an unspecified, but clearly very long time, he finds himself reliving the same day again and again. No one else realises that they have lived this day before, but Connors is acutely aware not only of being trapped, but that nothing he does matters. Even after his numerous, apparently successful, suicide attempts, he wakes up to the same Sonny and Cher song on the radio, trapped in the eternal return of February 2nd. He falls into a deep depression and one evening, sitting with two locals at the bar, asks them “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” To which one of them replies, “That about sums it up for me.”
This humorous exchange reveals why the plot of the film resonated so deeply with viewers (long before the pandemic.) Connors’ strange and unexplained situation is an extreme version of a common feeling that we often go to extreme lengths to avoid: the sense that our lives are routine, repetitious, limited, not of our choosing, and ultimately, without meaning.
Eventually, Connors realises that there are things he can do that do matter. Like the sourdough-bakers and fitness evangelists of lockdown one, he immerses himself in improving activities, learning to play jazz piano, memorise French poetry and master the art of ice-sculpting, amongst other pursuits. More importantly, he realises that his actions affect other people. Living the same day over and over gives him a chance to anticipate the needs of others, and he becomes a hero, saving a small child who falls from a tree and performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on a choking man in a restaurant. The key to this development is, of course, that he finally accepts his situation, having worked through denial, anger, bargaining and depression, the other four components of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous grief model.
Acceptance also figures prominently in philosophical discussions of the film, whether the plot is interpreted according to Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence of the same, or the more familiar image from Green mythology via the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus: Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, only for it to roll down again, the same relentless cycle repeating for all of eternity. It sounds dismal. And yet Camus ended The Myth of Sisyphus with the conclusion that “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Can we imagine ourselves happy? Can we accept our situation and then, like Phil Connors, move beyond mere acceptance to actively shaping the quality of each individual Groundhog Day?
Note on Affiliates: Wherever possible I link book titles to my shop on the UK bookshop.org website. If you purchase a book through my link I earn a small commission. Bookshop is a wonderful alternative to Amazon, as it supports local independent bookshops. On their website they explain that “By design, we give away over 75% of our profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books!”