Groundhog Day lessons

Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2010

Another Feb. 2 will be here soon. It's a day that has always had a special meaning for me - my birthday. But as birthdays have become less important (but always welcome) to me, I've thought a little more about other aspects of the day we call Groundhog Day.

Like many of our modern holidays or "named" days, the roots of the early February moment when we watch for an animal to come out of its den to check the weather are deep. Many northern European countries have celebrated similar events on the 1st or 2nd, going back to early Celtic days in England. The animals involved vary from legend to legend, but the connection to the weather outlook seems to be a common thread.

Today, however, many of us relate more to Bill Murray and the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. I remember that when I first saw it, I laughed a lot and didn't think much more about it. But it's one of those movies that is fun to watch again and again - could it be that watching Phil, the arrogant, cynical TV weatherman, relive the same day again and again induces some sort of desire to watch the movie again and again?

I've watched it enough to discern an important message. Those of you who have seen the movie know that as the day unfolds, a series of interactions with others produce one awkward moment after another. With each repeat of the day, it becomes obvious that Phil has learned something, at least enough to change his approach to the awkward moments, reduce the negative effect on others, and otherwise improve his day. On the small scale, the movie could be described as proof of the adage "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" or the old bromide "we learn by our mistakes."

That is all true, but there is a larger and broader lesson here.

As Phil began to recognize that he is trapped in the same day and recognize, as he approached each similar situation, that "I've been here before," he typically altered his approach to change the outcome.

After many repetitions, he discovers that when he approaches his interaction with others with a more positive attitude, his own peace of mind improves. His demeanor slowly changes from that of an arrogant reporter stuck on assignment in a small town to that of a curious and happy person, capable of love. Of course, to keep the comic story flowing, it is never quite that predictable, but the ultimate result is good.

In the course of the movie, Phil achieves something that many of us struggle with for our entire lives: He purges the negative side of his persona, his self-loathing arrogance, and replaces it with self-respect and an appreciation of the value of each moment. He does this by accepting the reality of each day (of course he has the advantage of reliving that day with several chances to get it right), and he is forced to face the inevitability of his mortality.

There are many moral truths in the movie. After all, in its own way it is a morality play. I see a broader lesson as well. If we are to make positive changes in our behavior for the good of ourselves and others, we need to reflect on our experiences and discern how we can improve the way we approach situations that used to turn out badly. That means paying attention to our personal history and not repeating past mistakes.

In the modern world of instant communication and reactive news, whether from the media or from our internet friends, the temptation is to live a reactive life without taking the time to reflect. While it might help, you don't need to sit in a place of worship for an hour or so each week to achieve a reflective pause.

You just need to realize that when your life seems to be overflowing with negativity, and every interaction in your daily grind begins to mirror that, you have the power to make some simple changes that can have very positive results.

Isn't that what living and growing is all about?

• Dave Dierdorff is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

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