Delight at the end of the tunnel December 20th, 2007
Many people over the years have observed that Groundhog Day is a very spiritual movie, and have interpreted Phil’s journey as being towards enlightenment.
Very interesting. I’ve just been reading a book about enlightenment.
Michael Hutchison is a paraplegic living in Santa Fe who recounts in this book his own amazing story. At one time he was a writer who specialized in mind-spirit searches, doing extensive research using sensory deprivation tanks and also on controlling brain waves using electroencephalograms and biofeedback. Then there was a horrible fire that wiped out his past and his future. Then there was a horrible accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
But Hutch (I’ve met him and can call him this) isn’t into self-pity. In fact, somehow, through the drastic reduction of his life, he has actually achieved what he had been searching for in his research – enlightenment.
In Groundhog Day, Phil’s life was similarly reduced – both geographically and temporally. Like Phil, Hutch would wake up every day to the same day, to repetition and routine, and neither of them was able to escape the irreducible: their own existence.
I have no reason to question Hutch’s sense of enlightenment, and maybe I even understand it better by having taken the journey with Phil.
But I wonder about Phil’s enlightenment.
The last February 2nd of Phil’s Punxsutawney life was certainly a high note, one that reflected a significant reduction in Phil’s ego, a generosity towards his community, and a life-affirming perspective on the significance of the day he was reliving. He had become loving, of people and of life itself, and as a result he finally became lovable.
But what if that day was not the last day? What if Phil’s repeating day had kept on repeating?
Any movie you see, and most stories you read or hear, will come to a conclusion of some sort or another. A comedy will end on a high note where everything unresolved for the character will resolve. A movie in particular is bounded by time – for a comedy it is usually about 90 minutes – and it always comes to an end. Where the writer chooses to end the story will determine what that story is about.
A fairy tale ends nicely with “…and they lived happily ever after.” But what if the same fairy tale story kept going and ended on a day when the couple is fighting, the bills are due, the crops have failed, the baby is sick, and the dog has fleas? Do we feel the same way about the story?
Groundhog Day ended happily. Phil reached “enlightenment”, became lovable to Rita, and his life was able to continue. But let’s say that wonderful day was actually a repetition of many similar days, and that there were many repetitions to follow. Would Phil ever tire of helping people? Once he achieved selfless love, would more endless repetitions in any way change that?
Maybe he would wake up one day and think, “Fine. I can spend my day helping people and making them happy, but what’s the point? Tomorrow they’ll just wake up miserable again.” Perhaps he would go through a phase of not interacting with other people at all.
As a fully enlightened being Phil would just “be”. He would sit still, doing nothing, disappearing into the one-ness of the universe. He may be pure energy and love and one-ness, but so what? Is that any kind of a life? He may at some point conclude that it is not.
He may even in time grow to resent the townspeople again, once again feeling separate and superior to them. The cycle could turn, and what had seemed like enlightenment to Phil could have just been a passing phase, one that he did truly achieve, but would lose again. A thousand years beyond he may once again achieve it, even more deeply and profoundly than before, and a thousand years after that he could again realize the pointlessness and even wrong-headedness of such an achievement.
The thing about Phil is that at each stage of his existence he kept feeling that he finally understood himself and his predicament. After endless escape attempts he concludes, “Now I get it – I’m stuck in this hellish place forever.” That was one ending. After realizing he could do anything he wanted to do without consequences he concludes, “Now I get it – I am a god in this town.” That was another ending. After proving unable to make Rita love him he concludes, “Now I get it – I’ll never be lovable.” And on and on, one ending after another, each with a different lesson for Phil.
When Phil finally feels unconditional love for the people he once despised and he loses his ego and becomes one with the Punxsutawney universe, it is easy for us to conclude, “Now I get it – Phil has reached enlightenment.”
Do we get it? Is that really the ending, or is that just where I chose to end it?
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