The Existential Meaning of "Groundhog Day"

“Now that I’ve shed my skin completely, One true reality alone exists.”

Zen saying


Zen monk: “How should I escape birth and death?” Zen Master Shih-kung: “What is the use of escaping it?”


“In this world, we eat, shit, sleep and wake up.  After that all we have to do is die.”



Once again it’s Groundhog Day, which was nothing more than a rather witless locally-oriented celebration (and an American example of the widespread, traditional, pre-scientific practice of using animals’ behavior to forecast the weather)…until Harold Ramis’ brilliant movie of the same name.  It became — and still is — my all-time favorite message film. 

Groundhog Day explores the everydayness of life with an ingenious premise worthy of Kafka, Camus, or Ray Bradbury: an arrogant newsman from Pittsburgh (Bill Murray, named Phil, as in “Puxsatawny Phil,” the groundhog) finds himself trapped in Puxsatawney, PA, where, over and over, he wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to Sonny and Cher singing  “I Got You, Babe,” and he and his producer (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman have to do the same local-color Groundhog Day story, day after day after day.

At first he can’t believe what’s going on.  When he does catch on, he uses his newfound “power” to learn more and more about an attractive local woman (who’s always meeting him for the first time) and get laid.  Of course, that’s what any guy would do. 

Coping strategies

He then decides: what the hell?  He becomes a libertine, a freedom-abuser.  He consumes large quantities of sugar; he smokes.  He even tosses a live toaster into his bathtub. 

He realizes he can do anything – even kill himself — and still wake up to Sonny and Cher the next morning.  There’s no way out.

So bit by bit, his coping strategies turn positive.  He starts to acquire wisdom.  His Groundhog Day broadcasts become more thoughtful and philosophical.  He starts to take piano lessons (every lesson is the “first” one for the teacher) and gets better and better.  He rescues people from predicaments that he knows are going to happen. 

He makes many attempts to bed Rita, and, after many slaps in the face, sheds his arrogance and snarkiness, becomes a real person…and one day awakes to Sonny and Cher – with Andie in bed beside him.  Something has changed!

Existential message

Think of it: you will awaken tomorrow morning, with the same fundamentals all in place: the same mind in the same body with the same partner (or no partner) beside you, in the same house, with the same job and relatives.  The people around you will continue to be who they are.  If your boss was a demented tyrant yesterday, he/she will still be one today.

The macro environment changes a little, but it doesn’t affect most of us directly.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, politicians will preen and spar, insane religions and political doctrines will still have the same powerful grip on the human mind.  Muslims will still be killing each other, Christians will still be trying to take over the US, and people of all “faiths” will continue to believe literally in their holy texts. 

Ancient superstitions and rivalries will be as strong and destructive as they were yesterday.  The battle between scientific truth and religious fantasy will continue unresolved.  At least one Muslim will blow him/herself up, and Americans will continue to die in foreign wars. 

People will continue to blather about saving the planet even as they destroy it.  Politicians will promise change, but the only change will be that government will get bigger, and there will be more war. 

Reactions to life

Marvelously predictable, isn’t it?  And we react just like Phil – we can’t believe it (SURELY my wife/kid/boss/situation can change; it MUST!).  We can’t believe there’s no way out.

We try all kinds of things to get away from it.  We go to bars, football games, churches, and casinos.  We run away to addictions of all kinds.  Anything to “get away.”  We even try to kill ourselves, quickly (suicide) or slowly (drugs, alcohol, work).

But perhaps on Groundhog Day, we can realize, as Phil eventually did, that through it all, the only thing that we can certainly change is our own mind and behavior.  Like Phil, all we can do is keep at it until we get it right.

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