I’ve started a new tradition: each year on Groundhog Day I watch Groundhog Day and try to have revelations about my life. If you’re skeptical about the ability of this goofy comedy to deliver insight, I ask that you reserve your judgement. Because I'm going to suggest that Groundhog Day represents a modern path to enlightenment more relevant to our time than anything else I’ve seen or read. It’s a parable about being present and finding meaning, about rituals and patterns. Let’s begin.
Phil Connors devotes his first few weeks caught in the Groundhog-Day-loop to selfishness and indulgence. He eats whatever he wants and follows every impulse. He’s operating on what David Foster Wallace calls our “default setting,” which is a natural belief that we are “the absolute centre of the universe. The realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting. Hard-wired into our boards at birth.”
This quote is from This is Water, Wallace’s well-known commencement speech, in which, he talks about boredom, routine and the soul-crushing magnitude of what day in, day out really means. This is exactly what the absurd premise of Groundhog Day captures so perfectly: the feeling of facing the torturous sameness.
Now, there is one advantage to Phil Connor’s situation. No matter how destructive his actions, there are absolutely no consequences. All is erased when the clock strikes midnights. But even the unrestrained pursuit of wants can’t distract him from the monotony and meaningless of this new broken-record reality and despair eventually sets in. It’s a despair so heavy and muddy that ending it all feels like his only choice.
He goes to ridiculous lengths in his suicide attempts, but still, the sun rises and the same song wakes him out of an uneasy sleep. He looks out the window onto a bustling town. The band is practicing, crowds are gathering; it’s Groundhog Day, again.
I’ve never forgotten the advice Scott McLeod gave in his 2005 TED talk: “watch for patterns, work like hell.” Patterns help us see intention behind the automatic, they expose simple truths so often missed. Because, as Wallace reminds us, “the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
For many years, I had a chaotic schedule where every day looked somewhat different. I built my life like this because I'm terrified of boredom. But over the last couple of months, I’ve been working in-house for a client a few days a week. I was worried about the regularity and I’ll admit, at first I wanted to scream. After a couple of weeks though, I found myself thriving. Knowing what each day would look like, feeling a sense of rythmn, finding small differences in seeming uniformity – it gave me a sense of, dare I say it, joy.
Suddenly the sadness that I felt most days when dragging myself out of bed had context: I knew it would dissipate after I shook off the drowsiness and got my body moving. I knew this, because that’s the way it was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.
When we stop and reflect, when we compare yesterday with today, this year with last, we’re better able to notice patterns. Up until now, my moods seemed like the result of random external circumstances. But repetition helped me notice the internal patterns of my thoughts, the tides of my emotions.
This is not to say that sameness automatically breeds insight. In fact, it’s much more likely to make us numb, desensitized and completely oblivious to everything around us. But this, Wallace tells us, is the real work of living: “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead. Unconscious. A slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, imperially alone, day in, day out.” Sameness offers us an opportunity to watch for patterns – but only if we choose to take advantage of it.
With no way out or end in sight, Phil is forced to accept his fate. He begins to make use of his time by turning to education, studying classic literature and learning to play the piano. His quest for knowledge eventually leads him out of his own selfishness. He starts to listen for the first time, and as his awareness grows, he reaches out and connects with his new community.
Wallace says that education helps you learn how to think, which really “means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how to construct meaning from experience.” In seeking out knowledge, Phil Connors realizes that he has a choice.
Of course, realizing we have a choice requires questioning our automatic assumptions, our default setting. It means moving outside of ourselves and requires that we start paying attention. In short, understanding and embracing our capacity to choose our thoughts is about awareness – a longstanding goal of religious scholars, spiritual seekers and mystics who have sought out religious worship on their path to enlightenment. For those looking to sharpen the lens with which they view the world, religion has proven quite useful. And I think it's for one simple reason: religion brings ritual into our lives.
If patterns provide insight, then rituals are powerful tools for building awareness in the face of routine. Routines are meant to move you through an action so you don’t think about what you’re doing. But rituals make you stop and reflect. Moments of prayer give shape to a day and celebrations give shape to the year. Both provide natural points for comparison.
That Phil Connors repeats Groundhog Day, of all days, is not inconsequential. Groundhog Day is one of our last secular rituals – a celebration that’s not religious but nevertheless invokes faith, superstition and belief. Even when we dismiss it as a ridiculous concept, there’s still a part of us, deep down inside that wonders…
Too often, religious rituals are dismissed because of the absurdity of the belief they represent, which completely ignores the value in the act of believing itself. I’m not saying we should all run out and join a congregation, I’m merely suggesting that we take a closer look at the practices of people that have consciously directed their worship. Because, I believe Wallace is right when he says that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism, there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
Rituals, worship, belief – they all help us see patterns more clearly and patterns bring about insight. They remind us about the important “work of choosing.” They wake us up to our own self-centeredness, our fear, our greed, our arrogance. Our certainty about what is true. To quote Wallace again:
“If you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred. On fire with the same force that lit the stars. Love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that all that mystical stuff is necessarily true, the only thing that is capital T true is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”
So, next Groundhog Day I’ll be watching Groundhog Day, trying to have revelations about my life. I will not be making resolutions or plans because this exercise isn’t about manifesting some far-off, idealized future. It’s meant to be a splash of cold water, a yearly ritual to wake myself up, an examining of the deep, well-worn grooves of my mind and the thoughts I choose to listen to over and over and over.