Thursday, February 2, 2017

Groundhog Day Gets Real

It's said that Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had a pretty big falling out over Groundhog Day.  Murray saw the film as a existentialist morality tale.  Ramis recognized those underpinnings but wanted to keep things light.  It was, after all, a comedy.

Both men were right.  The film, initially overlooked by audiences and quite a few critics, has survived the way cult classics like The Big Lebowski and The Shawshank Redemption have, finding their stride long after leaving the multiplexes.  Being a clever comedy is not what keeps Groundhog Day in our vernacular.  It's that it does touch something within our spiritual core, playing off the familiar Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance).

From a Buddhist perspective, it captures the notion of Samsara, the endless cycle of human suffering that is caused by our constant cravings and aversions.  We want things to be different.  We want more contentment and less struggle.  It is our perspective, not merely our circumstances, that leads to our discontent.

For many of us (not all, but many), these are uncertain times underscored by a steady sense of dread.  There has been a fundamental shift in our national voice, and for a lot of us, it feels hostile, selfish, and bullying. We want things to be different, and we struggle to figure out how we can best make our voices heard to create the change we crave.  In the meantime, we keep waking up as the clock turns over to 6am, the radio blares "I Got You Babe", and we acknowledge that we're in for another day of political and social samsara.  Facebook fights, Twitter wars, CNN, Fox, NPR, and Breitbart.  It's all there for us, every day, just as sure as Ned Ryerson is going to greet Phil Connor in the street to sell him life insurance.

What Phil Connors learns in Groundhog Day is that the struggle gets easier, and the suffering is lessened, when he turns his attention from trying to change what he can't to changing what he knows he can.  Of course, that doesn't mean he isn't working toward getting the calendar to flip to February 3rd and the promise of a new day.  That's the thing he wants most, but to make it happen, he has to change his tactics.

Phil starts to pay attention.  He discovers the power of letting go of ego and opening up to the suffering of others.  He finds empathy.  That's how a self-centered, snarky meteorologist goes from absorption in his own unhappiness to becoming an agent of change in bringing comfort to others.  And it's this journey from samsara to the role of bodhisattva (one who puts compassion for others first) that ultimately liberates Phil Conners from suffering as well.  Some have said that by the end of the film, Phil has attained enlightenment.  Buddhahood.  Not bad for a weatherman from Pittsburgh.

We've got a long road ahead of us, whether you are "all in" for POTUS 45 or railing against his policies, cabinet, and character.  We're all - in some capacity - suffering as we try to figure out why our differences divide us so deeply while our humanity seemingly comes up short in establishing common ground.  

For the foreseeable future, it's Groundhog Day.  And the shadows are long, indeed.  But maybe the struggle - if managed mindfully - can lead to something we can truly be proud of.

How we choose to live this day, ad infinitum, will determine our personal and collective destiny.

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