Groundhog Day has become like a personal religious holiday for me. Around this time every year, I break out my well-worn copy of the Bill Murray classic by the same name and watch it again to relive my most consistent fantasy: Going back in time to undo the mistakes of the past and learn from them, at last. If only real life were so generous.
I’ve already written about how this movie takes a Buddhist perspective on life and weaves an entertaining story about a self-centered egotist cursed to relive the same day over and over again until he finally grows up into someone capable of appreciating the value of other human beings. The notion of eternal recurrence sounds absurd until you consider that humanity as a whole really does keep repeating the same cycles over and over again. Taken as a collective entity, the human race keeps dying and coming back again to make the exact. same. mistakes. over and over again. One wonders if we will ever learn.
As a deconvert from a religion which teaches us to bank everything on a second life for which we have only anecdotal “evidence,” I find it fascinating to imagine how a man would react upon discovering that there is in fact no tomorrow. It’s a clever analogue to the notion that, if in fact there is no life after this one, we will need to rethink what are our priorities and then reorganize our collective goals accordingly.
If you discovered there were no life after this one, what would you do differently? How much would your daily life actually change? What would come to matter most to you? Fascinating questions, all.
But that’s not what I’m pondering this morning. Today I’ve got a different question I’d like to explore:
Q: How would you have experienced this movie’s storyline if you were Rita, the love interest played by Andie MacDowell?
What if you were to play the movie right up until the first time Phil woke up to that obnoxious Sonny and Cher song, but then skipped immediately to the last time, experiencing the day the way Rita would have on that particular day? How would Phil’s transformation have struck you if you were that particular iteration of the woman who went through the same number of Groundhog Days as did Phil…but without remembering any of them before this one?
It’s a fascinating thought experiment that I’d like to explore for a second, if for no other reason than to take my mind off of the dismantling of my country’s constitutional system of checks and balances for a few moments before finding something else with which to distract myself.
What If You Were Rita?
Phil Connors goes through dozens, or hundreds…some would even say thousands of identical Groundhog Days before he finally learns to care about things and people other than himself. So also does everyone else in Punxsutawney, by the way, only Phil is the only one who remembers any of it the next morning. Consequently, he is the only one who actually changes over the course of this repetitive 24-hour cycle.
But imagine for a moment if you were Rita. Or more accurately, one of the Ritas in this potentially endless parade of Ritas living through myriad alternate versions of February 2nd. How many of them were there, ultimately? Who knows? For the sake of today’s thought experiment, let’s call this one Rita C-137.
Rita C-137 went to bed despising her shallow, vain, middle-aged prima donna coworker who then woke up the next day an intriguing, complex altruist able to play the piano like Ray Charles and create perfect ice sculptures with a chainsaw like it was nothing. Self-Actualized Phil is friendly and fun, nothing at all like the man who went to sleep in Punxsutawney the night before. How on earth could a person change that much over the course of a single night of sleep?
The way it happened doesn’t really matter. Groundhog Day aficionados know the original script imagined a reason for Phil’s imprisonment in this eternally recursive day: He angered an ex-girlfriend who cast a spell on him so that he would have to keep reliving the worst day of his life over and over again until he finally grew up. Boy howdy, can I relate to that one. Thankfully, the late director Harold Ramis (Egon from Ghostbusters and the physician who makes a cameo appearance in Groundhog Day) decided to cut out the explanation because it really wasn’t important. I like it better not seeing why things happened the way they did. What matters is what Phil learned, and how he changed.
But all of this left Rita C-137 marveling at how a man could change that much—and in those ways–over the course of a single evening. What she didn’t know was just how many other Ritas had already gone through evenings with Phil, many of which ended with versions of her slapping him in the face and returning to her own quarters, alone and angry.
What ever happened to all those other Ritas? We will never know.
But this one is the one who matters at the moment, and this Rita found a Phil who seemed to know everything and everyone in this tiny hamlet in western Pennsylvania. To her, Phil’s abilities seemed miraculous…impossible, even. At one point in the diner he confessed he felt like a god…not the God, of course, but a god…with a little g. He wondered aloud if “the real God” was really omnipotent or rather if he had just been around for so long that he knew everything.
Twelve years of Catholic school told Rita C-137 that this wasn’t possible. But we don’t really know what’s not possible, do we? As finite human beings, we really can only say what’s highly improbable, and there is a HUGE difference between impossible and improbable. Like the mysterious character Griffin said in Men in Black III:
“A miracle is what seems impossible but happens anyway.”
More on that in this post here.
Like Rita C-137 on this particular recurrence of Groundhog Day, we are all faced with lifetimes full of moments that seem to us like they had to have been engineered for us according to our needs, or to the needs of the moment, and it convinces us that something intelligent MUST be directing what is happening around us.
But that’s not the only possible explanation.
It’s also possible that, no matter how many universes there have been since the beginning of it all (who really knows?), there was at least one which had the necessary components in place to create a world that included you…along with everyone else born into an existence which appears on the surface like it required a miracle for it to happen.
I don’t blame anyone for concluding their lives could not have happened apart from an intelligent design of some kind. Whenever you look back over the course of your life, the backward glance itself creates an optical illusion wherein you see only those things which made you who you are, giving it the appearance of a design which exists only within your own idiosyncratic memory.
But the reality is that things just are the way they are, and any design we see in all of it has to be put there by us. We just happen to live in the version of reality in which WE became the people we are today. Any other potential existences are completely irrelevant, and we would have no way of discerning that they ever even existed, just like this Rita would have had no idea that any other versions of herself ever happened.
Does the “Why” Even Matter?
Now, I’ll grant that the analogy breaks down at some point because, in Phil’s case, something supernatural did seem to trap him into this recursive loop until he finally outgrew it. But that’s just a plot device, and I’d like to leave that part aside in order to ask:
Would we be any better at detecting alternative realities to our own than the fictitious Rita was in Groundhog Day? I would suggest we would not be. It’s all speculation, of course—a thought experiment, since the only reality we have is the one we’re living in at this particular moment.
Lately here, movies and streaming series have increasingly explored the idea that multiple universes could theoretically exist, with multiple versions of everything and everyone in them. Into the Spiderverse tops that list (one of the best films ever made, imo), and fans of Rick and Morty would also be quick to share what their favorite show has taught them about the idea as well. It’s all just a product of imagination, but then so are all of the other frameworks which help us understand why things are the way they are around us, religions and philosophies included.
And that brings me to my point: Understanding the “why” of it all doesn’t really matter unless we know for certain how the universe even works. And in case you didn’t know, we don’t. Scores of people will line up to tell you they DO know all the whys, but they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
The reality we currently have is the only one that matters to you and me, and it doesn’t really matter how things came to be the way they are. What matters is what we choose to do with the reality that we have. In real life, there is no script and no apparent director, either. We are all players upon this stage, as Shakespeare said, and our beginnings and endings aren’t always up to us as much as we would prefer.
But they’re still up to us to some degree. In a play with no director, or one who hides in the shadows just to see what everyone will do, you get to decide for yourself what you do from moment to moment…within certain limitations. At some point in Groundhog Day, that finally dawned on Phil Connors…even if only after trying out all the usual short-sighted alternatives to a real, meaningful human experience.
And so it also was for Rita, the TV station producer who couldn’t wrap her head around the complicated circumstances which produced a meaningful connection with a man she detested just a few short hours earlier. The “why” of it all didn’t ultimately matter. What mattered was that this was the reality in which she found herself, and from this point forward she could choose to do with it whatever she pleased.
Just like it is with me and with you, right now. It doesn’t really matter how it all came to be, nor where it is going. What matters is what you choose to do next.
In closing, I’ll leave you with an ad put out just this weekend by Jeep because it makes me happy:
[Image Source: Columbia Pictures]
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