Using the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Daniel Budd explores how our daily rhythms, or "virtual repetitions," provide structure for our lives - but can also carry deadening, de-humanizing consequences.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. (1)
Second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, season after season, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, eras and eons --day in, day out, over and over again and again our lives are made up of a variety of repetitions. Time is one of them. We live in and through various repetitions of Time and in Time. These repetitions provide a structure within which and through which we live. Special times also have their repetitions cultural and national holidays, celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries, and liturgical observations such as Wesak or Yom Kippur or Christmas. Year after year, these moments in Time are a part of the rhythms of our lives.
Other rhythms contribute to the repetitious structure of our lives, albeit ones of which we are not always conscious our heartbeat/pulse, our breathing, even the pace of our walking creates a rhythm of repetition which carries us along our life's way.
We all have various repetitions which are a part of our personal routines. What we do when we arise in the morning, how we prepare ourselves for sleep in the evening, and all the various behaviors we sometimes refer to as "personal quirks" are a part, over and over again, of who we are and how we live our lives. Interwoven with these are the repetitions of meals, of personal hygiene, cleaning our home, going to work, and doing things like the dishes, or the laundry, and seasonal repetitions like shoveling snow or mowing the lawn or weeding the garden.
There are more. The varieties of repetitions and rhythms in our lives are manifold and in many ways hold our lives together, give them structure, provide a framework in which we live and move and in many ways have our being.
There are also repetitions which confuse, complicate, or even stagnate human life. Repetitions of a neurotic or compulsive nature. Repetitions which attempt to shield us from Life, which narrow our perspectives or shut out fears and anxieties. Repetitions which strive for sameness, instead of variety; which attempt to control, instead of provide a channel for the energies of Life. We may call these "virtual" repetitions, the shadow-side of repetitions, two-dimensional repetitions which give the illusion of something with depth and body. "Virtual reality," writes Robert Sardello, "is an imitation of soul in the world." (2) Ironically, a two-dimensional medium suggests a way of viewing the world multi-dimensionally with soul. The 1993 film, Groundhog Day, illustrates the deadening, de-humanizing aspect of virtual repetition, and suggests the positive aspects of ritual repetitions, the ways in which repetition can provide an opportunity for psychological growth and an increased perception of soul in the world.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays an angry, flippant, sarcastic weatherman with a Pittsburgh television station whose annual duty is to travel to Pauxatauney, PA and cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Dripping with a distancing irony, Murray covers the story as if he's suddenly found himself in his best shoes standing in a well-fertilized barnyard. He then retires to a nice bed'n'breakfast for the night.
He is awakened at 6 a.m. by Sonny and Cher and the clock radio. "I've got you, babe," they sing. And for Murray, it's Groundhog Day all over again. He quickly discovers that he is reliving this day over and over again. Nothing he can do will break the cycle. He fights it, even attempts suicide, and in other ways variously butts his head against his fate. And over and over, the day keeps reminding him, "I've got you, babe...."
Eventually, worn down, he begins to use his time. He learns to play the piano. He discovers accidents which, the next "day", he averts. His entire personality changes, from angry and rebellious to content and easygoing, even quietly confident. He becomes a hero to the townspeople, and realizes his affection for his female television producer. The culmination of their relationship marks the end of his cycle of living the same day over and over and over again.
There are many ways to speak about this resolution. Symbolically and psychologically, Murray's character connects with his soul, with his anima, with his feeling function. He becomes more whole, integrating a part of himself that he had previously kept at straight-arm's length. Another way of speaking about what "saves" him is to call what happens an "attitude adjustment" instead of trying not to live the same day over and over, he learns to bring something new to each day and likewise look for something new in each Groundhog Day he relives. Yet another way - he accepts his fate and strives to understand it and make the most of it, to give himself to it. Yet another is to call it a conversion, a repentance, a "turning around", a reorientation of his personality. Yet another way is expressed in a quatrain of the Sufi poet, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rum.
I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking on the inside!"...(3)
Roland Barthes wrote about the resolution of Groundhog Day before it ever hit the screen. Writing specifically about the process of reading, and in particular of re-reading, he stated.
Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us 'throw away' the story once it has been consumed . . . so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book..., rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere).(4)
Murray's character is forced to "re-read" Groundhog Day until he and the day itself are saved from the repetition of reading the same story everywhere. He re-reads his life, he re-writes his story; he re-author-izes his life and his story, and thereby gains a deepened and more human author-ity than he ever could have before.
This is a cinematic lesson with many applications for those of us who fall into the illusion that we have worked through a problem and are done with it; for those of us who believe we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls; for those of us who believe we have solved any one of our problems; for those of us who believe we can consume one of our own issues and then throw it away; for those of us who want to leave a part of ourselves in the dark, turning our backs to the issue at hand and pounding at the door. Groundhog Day suggests that we can break free of the vicious circle of virtual repetition.
But even this suggestion, that "we" can break free, is problematic. The ego is still cleverly at the center of the stage. "Oh, I'll remember," it assures us. "I can adjust. I will avoid the pitfalls." The repetition of experience, however, re-minds us that "I", more often than not, forget. We won't remember unless we participate in some regular repetitive form of remembering, what is often referred to as a discipline, a practice, or a ritual.
Jung defines a ritual as "the practice and repetition of the original experience" which initiated a religious tradition. (5) Such ritual can have varying effects ritual can be of "extraordinary importance" as a method of "mental hygiene." It can be a necessary means of keeping one from an "immediate experience" which might prove overwhelming. On the other hand, it can lose its efficacy for others who do seek immediate, original experience (6), or it can be the means to an experience one does not anticipate. "Through the ritual action," wrote Jung, "attention and interest are led back to the inner, sacred precinct, which is the source and goal of the psyche and contains the unity of life and consciousness." (7)
In his essay, "On Psychic Energy", Jung wrote of the rituals of "primitive man" to illustrate what he calls "the canalization of Libido." We might understand this as a purely psychological phrase for the action of ritual. Ritual channels psychic energy in a particular fashion toward a particular focus. When our natures are left to themselves, their energy produces random, natural phenomena. When we give ourselves to a ritual, we channel these energies with a specific focus toward which they would not naturally flow. The ceremonies of so-called primitive people, Jung wrote, show how much is needed to divert the libido from its natural river-bed of everyday habit into some unaccustomed activity. The modern mind thinks this can be done by a mere decision of the will and that it can dispense with all magical ceremonies - which explains why it was so long at a loss to understand them properly. Through these ceremonies the deeper emotional forces are released.... (8)
James Hillman put it succinctly "The soul has a drive to remember." (9) To remember "the inner, sacred precinct, which is the source and goal of the psyche". "The real sin," wrote Mircea Eliade, "is forgetfulness." (10)
"One might say that it is the particular function of sacred ritual to establish a relation between our higher and lower natures," writes Paul Jordan-Smith, "that they might properly serve one another."..."Whether uttered aloud, publicly or in private, or silently within...the repetition provides a basis for the penetration of the resonance [the content of the ritual] itself...into the heart, where it can take up residence and begin to resound on its own." (11)
This notion is illustrated in a story from Coleman Barks about a Sufi teacher who instructed his students to repeat and reflect upon the zikr with every breath, to make it their practice, their ritual. A student asked the teacher, "But how is that possible, I mean, how could anyone do that?" The teacher smiled and said, "It is like driving a car. At first you think it is difficult, but you get used to it. It becomes natural. After a while, you can even drive and talk at the same time." (12)
The repetition of the ritual, of the discipline or practice of the zikr, enables it to become a natural part of one's life, enables it to penetrate "into the heart, where it can take up residence and begin to resound on its own."
...our secular minds make several...grievous mistakes about [such] ritual repetition, (writes Jordan-Smith). One error is to take vivid and unusual experiences for the goal of [such rituals or disciplines], whether the result of private devotions or of public worship. The inherent dangers of this kind of error are manifold, from a kind of idolizing of the experience [itself], so that it replaces the true object of devotion, to despair when the experience ceases to be repeated.
The despair that failed hopes [and expectations] can bring is probably the source of the chief criticism of ritual, that it is empty and meaningless repetition. (13)
What saves ritual from emptiness and meaninglessness, what gives it life and substance? What distinguishes virtual repetition from ritual repetition? As Jung suggests, and as Groundhog Day shows, it is the stepping aside, even defeat, of the ego which, when it can no longer impede the process, allows the act of repetition to penetrate "into the heart, where it can take up residence and begin to resound on its own."
We never cease from the need to remember, to be recalled to our souls, to the reality of the Psyche, through some form of ritual repetition. If we do not consciously participate in some form of ritual repetition, some form of remembering and reminding, some form of reorienting our 'selves' to the Self, Life will find less helpful ways of placing the same lessons before us over and over again and again until we do find a place for them. We will wake up every morning to the same virtual day. We will read the same story in every story over and over again and again. Until, that is, we re-read the story, re-cite it, stand under it, listen to it, see it as if for the first time, even hold it in our arms and love it. We may then discover and accept that our very lives themselves are interwoven stories of repetition given more to re-solution than solution.
Second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, season after season, year after year...time after time we live as a tale that is told, as incredible interwoven stories spun, some would say, from the mind of God. Our day-to-day living can be flat and vacuously virtual, or multidimensional and richly ritualistic, a ritual repetition, a spiritual practice. We practice our lessons, like the students we are, over and over, again and again, because we are learning/growing in fits and starts ("one step forward, two steps back"), in little bits and pieces here and there, now and again, once and always, taking in small portions of Life as they come to us, present themselves to us, and ask for our attention.
Wendell Berry wrote
Within the circles of our lives
we dance the circles of the years,
the circles of the seasons
within the circles of the years,
the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles of our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.
Again, again we come and go,
changed, changing. Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy. The circles turn,
each giving into each, into all.
Only music keeps us here,
each by all the others held.
In the hold of hands and eyes
we turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.
And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone
into the darker circles of return. (14)
Our daily tasks and chores; the issues of personality which face us daily; our schedules and our routines; our worries and our confidences, fears and courage, irritations and pleasures, all come round again "in the darker circles of return", changed and changing, forming and transforming.
"Step by step the journey must be taken," wrote Frances Wickes, "and only by keeping an openness which permits the flow of energy between the unconscious and consciousness can the redeeming symbol continue its creative act of transformation." (15) What we do to maintain such an openness, like Kathleen Norris wrote of her own life, "must be done over and over like laundry, like liturgy." (16) As Jung wrote
The serious problems in life are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly. This alone preserves us from stultification and petrifaction. (17)
While Groundhog Day leaves us with the usual cinematic happy ending, re-viewing it saves us from literalizing its overall metaphor, allows us to re-read the film and save it from the literal (virtual) repetition of monolithic interpretation. This is even more important now that Groundhog Day is on videotape, allowing for repeated viewing (which suggests that it is the penultimate video to own.) When we are saved from hearing Sonny and Cher every morning, trapped in the same two-dimensional day over and over, reading the same story everywhere, we are saved for the incessant work we must do with the soul of Life, reviewing and rereading again and again the laundry and the liturgy, the deepening dimensions of a ritually repetitious life.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. (18)
© Daniel Budd 1999.Daniel Budd
537 Bird Avenue
Buffalo NY 14222 USA
1. T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," in The Complete Poems and Plays (New York Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) p. 144.
12. Coleman Barks, trans., We Are Three (Athens GA Maypop Books, 1987) "Introductory Notes." (Zikr means 'remembrance,' and refers to the repetition of the phrase "La 'illaha il'Allahu", "There is nothing other than You, O God. You alone are God.")