Yesterday while taking my daily deck break, I paged through what was available on the Fire TV we use out there. I spotted Groundhog Day, a cult classic movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, now acclaimed as one of the best films of the 1990s. The movie was about one-fourth done and even though I have it in my collection and have watched it a fair number of times, I clicked it on.And it struck me powerfully that this movie is about its lead character, Bill Murray as TV weatherman Phil Connors, living in Hell every day and not even knowing it - until he does.
Henceforth, Phil awakens every morning to discover it is Feb.2, Groundhog Day once again, the very same day it was when he woke up the last morning, and the same Feb.2 it will be the next time. Apparently forever.
For the first several of relived days, Phil decides to hit on women, steal from an armored car to buy a Mercedes, and generally sate his fleshly desires. He even hits on his producer, Rita. But she tells him he is a jerk and rebuffs him.
This where is struck me that Phil is in Hell. An apparent eternity of repeated Feb.2s, all identical, stretch before him. Nothing he does changes that. He comes to realize he can do anything he wants and no matter how criminal or virtuous he is, the alarm will awaken him again to yet another same old Feb. 2.
Driven finally to despair, Phil commits suicide - day after day after day, only to wake up afterward on Feb. 2 all over again. He is living in damnation: sure, certain, and unending.
The screenwriter’s initial plan was to have Connors trapped in the time loop for several millennia. The original script contains a final confession by Connors to his love interest Rita that “I’ve been waiting for you every day for ten thousand years.”
However, director Harold Ramis years later told The New York Times that Phil spent 33 or 34 years of repeated days, and people who worry about such things have generally accepted that.
Finally he succeeds in romancing Rita. She finally does love him and willingly returns with him to his hotel room. She had been there before, several thousand days ago in Phil's reference, when Phil's manner became so revolting she had slapped him hard and walked right out. But on this trip, Phil makes no advances at all. He yields control of his love to the one whom he loves.
She goes to bed with him, but importantly, they are both fully clothed just as they had been decades before. This time, though, Phil has not merely suppressed his fleshly desires. He has discarded them as he became filled with other-centered love. And so the night passes.
As usual, Phil is awakened by the radio alarm clock blaring the same tune it has blared for 34 years worth of Feb. 2s. But the announcers' dialog afterward is different. Phil opens his eyes and suddenly realizes the radio is not playing the same old thing. And then he sees Rita still lying next to him.
Phil has escaped Hell and entered Heaven. If, as Lewis said, the gates of Hell are locked only on the inside, Phil discovered that the key to the gates are his heart, mind, body and spirit, and how they all are embodied in love.
Can we really believe in Hell?
One thing to realize is that Hell is not a future abode of the damned. Human beings are born damned to begin with. Jesus himself said so in John 3, beginning with verse 16, which we usually recite by itself, thus omitting the basic rhetorical point. Here is the whole quote (italics added):
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Luke 17.20-21
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.
Then over time and not without difficulty, we may arrive at the fullness of love, when the Self is dethroned and we then come to know and live what we have come to be - someone whose heart is daily renewed in love because in the love of God, we fall into love every day with those whom God loves.
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. 1 John 4.15-21
The Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught that the happiness for which human beings strive is not about pleasure, contentment, or satisfaction, but is rather an act. It is specifically the activity of moral and intellectual virtues in human life that is the fulfillment, happiness, and ultimate goal of human life (what Aristotle calls “telos”). This kind of philosophy, then, is not predicated upon something that will result in the future, but in the completion of the act itself, in the moment, for its own sake.This is the conclusion that Phil finally reaches after all of his mistakes and detours through destructive philosophy. Reaching the understanding illustrated by Aristotle, he begins to cultivate precisely those moral and intellectual virtues. He learns to play the piano and make ice sculptures, he learns a generosity of spirit in helping others, and comes to the humbling realization that there are some things he cannot control when he comes up against the brick wall of the homeless man who dies on Groundhog Day every time, no matter what Phil does.It is the structure of the plot itself that causes this character development, and the audience can see at the end that the story was leading to this point from the beginning: when every day is the same, it finally forces Phil to realize that the ultimate meaning in his life is never to be found over the hill in some distant future, but rather in the dedicated activity of building the habit of virtue, in the present moment, every single day. It takes him years of the same day to come to this realization, but it turns out that the time loop was ultimately a blessing, as it is only when he learns the true meaning of life and happiness that he wakes up on February 3rd, finally knowing how to live.There’s nothing better for a lesson in moral virtue than falling into a cosmic temporal wormhole in a small Pennsylvania town.