The Profoundly Humane Vision of “Groundhog Day” (Stephen Turley, February 1st, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
And so, Phil interprets his situation as only Phil Connors could: He convinces himself that he is a god. But Phil was soon to learn that there was nothing godlike about him. You see, throughout the movie, Phil would turn a corner where an elderly homeless man would be begging for money, a man Phil avoided as if he were a leper. But on one cold night, Phil decides to walk the old man to a local hospital where he can get warm, and shortly after arriving at the hospital, the old man dies. Deeply moved by this, Phil would spend each day with the old man, [in fact he calls him ‘dad’ and ‘pop’], feeding him at restaurants, keeping him warm, trying to get him healthy, but to no avail. Every night, despite Phil’s administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the old man would pass away. Alas, there were just some things that he could not change.
And it is at this point in Phil’s experience that he begins to discover that what makes life worth living is not immediate gratification, or moral autonomy, or flippant cynicism, or self-deification, but rather encountering those things that give meaning and purpose to our lives. He begins to read great literature and poetry, he begins to learn the piano and ice sculpting, he helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. In fact, all of Punxsutawney is transformed by the caring attention he gives to those in need. And his affections for Rita transform into a love without reservation and without any hope of his affection ever being returned. In short, the perpetuity of February 2 became an arena in which Phil’s humanity was awakened. And the result is that Rita falls in love with him. And it is then that the cycle comes to an end, Phil wakes up on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day, and he lives the rest of his life with his dear Rita…in Punxsutawney, Pa.
As I reflect on this film, especially with regard to Phil’s original self-indulgence, I find that it provides a fascinating mirror for the modern age to which we find ourselves waking each morning. For the last few centuries, the Western world and increasingly the East has engaged in an unprecedented and frankly radical experiment in human civilization. We are in the midst of a collective social experiment that is attempting to construct a civilization based solely on scientifically observed cause and effect processes irrespective of any divinely-gifted transcendent meaning. Rooted in Enlightenment conceptions, it was argued that the enthronement of reason would finally realize what humans have hitherto for attempted to achieve through religious pursuits, but to no avail: wars would end, prosperity and technological advance would reign, and social and economic equality was finally within reach. The toll that we all had to pay for such promise, however, was that we collectively had to surrender the concept of meaning—what the Greeks called telos—as a reality divinely embedded in a created order, precisely because the created order has now been replaced with impersonal nature. But this was fine, we were told, since now we have the freedom to impart to life whatever meaning we as individuals choose to give it.
And so, it is to the self that our modern age has turned for meaning and life. Today, it is ubiquitously believed that the self needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and in this process of turning toward the self, there has emerged a sense of entitlement to self-actualization, and an accompanying right to charge with malice anyone or anything that would seek to stifle the self. The result of this collective self-indulgence is what researchers have called in a recent publication “The Narcissism Epidemic.” The authors of this study have noted “a single underlying shift in the American psychology: Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”