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The Groundhog Day Loop Breaking out of unpleasant cycles

Raise your hand if you love Groundhog Day!

No, not the day itself – a rodent predicting weather is kind of silly. I’m talking about the  1993 movie starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman in Pittsburgh who is assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney. Connors is cynical, rude, sarcastic and self-centered – a complete package of unpleasantness. But when he keeps waking up to the same day in the same town, he’s forced to make some changes.

We hear a lot about “me time” in today’s world, and I believe it’s essential that we periodically retreat to our happy place to maintain balance and re-energize our passions. On the other hand, it’s really easy to wander around in a dense forest of our own problems and perspectives. When that happens, we become unhappy and angry when others don’t give us what we want, no matter how unreasonable it might be. I remember seeing a quote a long time ago: “Egotism is the glue with which you get stuck in yourself.”

How can we avoid this trap of selfishness? Let’s take a few cues from Phil Connors.

LOOK

At the beginning of the movie, Phil can’t see beyond the tip of his nose. He is a classic egotist, so focused on his needs that he doesn’t see the needs of others. At the beginning of the film, when he and his TV crew drive up to a hotel, Phil mutters, “I can’t stay here,” and begins to complain. Meanwhile, his cameraman is unloading gear and Phil doesn’t offer a finger to help. Later, his producer, Rita, bluntly tells him, “You’re egocentric. It’s your defining characteristic.”

After being caught in the time loop, Phil slowly begins to change his tune. On the morning that his cameraman, Larry, gets ready for the shoot, Phil brings him coffee just the way he likes it – skim milk, two sugars. Phil, seeing that Larry is handling heavy gear, offers to help. “You got your coffee,” he tells Larry, “so I got it.”

We miss golden opportunities to serve when we constantly gaze inward. The Bible invites us to be aware of needs other than our own: “…with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).

LISTEN

When Phil realizes that he is waking up to the same Groundhog Day, he decides to listen to others – so he can take advantage of them. He gets to know his attractive producer, Rita, only in a selfish attempt to seduce her. He orders her favorite drink, pretends he wants to have a family, and recites French poetry, which she studied in college. But at the end of each repetitive day, Rita realizes that Phil is playing her – and she slaps him.

Over and over.

Finally, Phil begins to genuinely fall in love with his producer. In a poignant scene, he tells her, “I know all about you . . . you like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a mountain lake in the summer with your family. There’s a long, wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You’re a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You’re very generous. You’re kind to strangers and children. And when you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.”

Phil began listening to Rita with his heart, not just his ears, and was able to describe her inner beauty. In a later scene, he also drew in his cameraman by asking, “Larry, we never talk. Do you have kids?”

Research has shown that good listeners cultivate deeper friendships and even enjoy better health than those who don’t lend an empathetic ear. Whereas speaking usually raises blood pressure, attentive listening can bring it down. The apostle James may not have known about these benefits, but he knew it was better to listen than to speak.

LOVE

Finally, Phil learns how to genuinely love people during his stay in Punxsutawney. He changes a flat tire on the car of some elderly women; catches a little boy who falls from a tree (although the kid never thanks him); and gives aid to a tattered vagrant. When Phil first sees the old beggar with his hand out, he barely gives him a glance. Later, as he begins to emerge from his selfish tomb, he hands the man a generous wad of money. At the end of one of the time-loop days, the old man dies in an alley and Phil determines that he will help him escape his fate. In the next loop, he takes the man to a hospital, where a nurse later informs Phil that he passed away. Incredulous, Phil demands to see his chart. The nurse simply replies, “Sometimes, people just die.” 

The next scene shows Phil at a diner, buying his homeless friend a hot meal. Still, the old man ends up in a dark, cold alley with his life ebbing away. Phil administers CPR and begs the man to breathe. He dies and Phil looks heavenward with pleading eyes. He is beginning to show true compassion for another human being. This is the kind of selfless love that the Bible extols over and over again. 

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