Editor’s Note: David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.
I can’t think of a more fitting start to this story than to point out it’s the same one I wrote last year, with some dates changed to reflect two years into the pandemic instead of one.
Don’t be bothered. You probably never read it last year, and if you did, you’ve long forgotten it. But read on. It’s just as relevant then as it is now. Welcome to life on auto-repeat, where we take you back to this question the film “Groundhog Day” poses:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
That’s what a depressed Phil Connors (played by actor Bill Murray) asks two men at a bar as he contemplates the bleak fate of repeating Groundhog Day over and over. One of them answers: “That about sums it up for me.”
That about sums it up for a lot of people over the last two years. As lockdowns went into place, many of us were initially reminded of the film as a useful shorthand description of our new normal. No real travel. No commutes. No classrooms. Every day the same, all blurring together.
Art doesn’t just imitate life. Great art helps frame life and give it meaning. I’ve previously made the case that the movie “Groundhog Day” is great art, full of practical and religious insights. And early on in the pandemic, I embraced the Groundhog Day-ness of our lives.
When our lockdown began, I set my morning alarm to the audio from the film: Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” followed by the radio DJ dialogue of “OK campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s cooooold out there today…”
Just as Phil initially and selfishly embraces his temporal loop in the movie, I found some aspects of our new normal great. Working from home. Seeing my family all the time. Running and meditating on the regular. I had some creative projects I’d been wanting to tackle for years and dug in.
Then, like the plot of the film, the initial enthusiasm wore off. The word “indefinitely” felt more like a Sisyphean curse than an opportunity. I had nothing brilliant to show for my creative endeavors. Meditating got spotty. Some of my friends began struggling. Fear dictated daily decision-making. People I know got very sick. And above everything brewed a grim storm of pandemic death tolls, racial injustice and political rancor. Act 2 of “Groundhog Day” is dark. Phil enters a deep depression; even suicide is no escape for him.
Then Act 3 rescues the perpetual day. Phil comes back around to finding the upsides of being stuck in a skipping record of time. Only this phase is more enlightened. He uses the time for the service of others and in self-improvement. He masters the day, each one getting closer to perfection. Arguably, especially from a Buddhist perspective, this effort is what frees him from his time prison.
As we each pass or approach year two of the pandemic, “Groundhog Day” still has lessons on how to manage our own loop. The last act of the film reminds us to focus on three areas that bring us closer to happiness if we can muster the effort.
Do the right thing
Phil’s perfect day includes fixing someone’s flat tire, catching a kid who falls out of a tree and preventing a man from choking at dinner. These are each a part of his daily round of mitzvahs.
It’s worth thinking about what that looks like for us in the context of family, friends and neighbors. Maybe it’s connecting more, or giving gifts of time, empathy and humor. From a public health point of view, it means avoiding indoor spaces except when necessary, masking up in public spaces, washing your hands regularly and keeping your distance. We know the drill. We just have to keep doing it a little while longer.
There’s a parable by Leo Tolstoy titled “The Three Questions” about how we should live our lives. The three answers all boil down to one philosophy: The most important thing to do is do good for those around you, right now.
Of course, we’re tired of the vigilance after living it for so long. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep doing it, or that we can’t. By one estimate, Phil repeats Groundhog Day for nearly 34 years. If you want a nonfiction benchmark, Anne Frank lived in hiding in Amsterdam during World War II for more than two years. Even as you continue to make personal and travel-related sacrifices, keep fixing those flat tires, keep wearing your mask over your nose. Please.
“Do not do great things,” the writer, teacher and pacifist Colman McCarthy said, passing on wisdom handed to him by Mother Teresa. “Do small things in a great way.”
It’s the little things
Small things can also be sources of profound joy.
Stuck in our own Punxsutawneys – the Pennsylvania town where the real-life, and movie, Groundhog Day celebration takes place – many have been denied the things in life that make us happy such as traveling, socializing indoors and visiting extended family.
But if we’re lucky (and I know many are not), we may have more opportunities now to appreciate fundamental aspects of life we can still enjoy, the kind of details we tended to overlook and take for granted back in our formerly overextended lives. There is deep contentment to be found in activities such as cooking, talking with and reading to our children, walks though nature, bonding with pets, listening to music, gazing at stars, playing board games, watching great movies, reading good books.
Now could be a good time to start or restart a gratitude journal or share with others what you’re grateful for. Numerous studies have shown this simple act of counting one’s blessings increases satisfaction with life.
Variety is the spice of life
In Act 3 of “Groundhog Day,” Phil memorizes French poetry and learns to sculpt ice and play the piano. He may be stuck in the same place, but he retains his memories and builds skills that way.
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Now in our own Act 3, we may be burned out on sourdough bread making, but it’s not too late to still take up new skills. My wife restarted fiddle lessons. I’ve picked up a memoir project that had gone dormant. My older daughter has doubled down on her bullet journaling. We try to hike in new places. My wife and younger daughter made care packages for those asking for help along freeway exits in our town. If you’re bored, try to do something new, even safely within the confines of our current state.
Or as Phil gleefully says when he finally wakes up to the day after Groundhog Day: “Anything different is good.”