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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Column: Déjà vu

Memory

I watched Groundhog Day five times this past weekend. Like most exercises, it was an act of repetition.

Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Connors, a sarcastic TV weatherman who is mysteriously made to relive the same Feb. 2, again and again. He wakes that morning at 6 a.m. in a wintery Punxsutawney, Pa., no matter what.

Watching it on repeat was my entirely naïve attempt to empathize with the character.

Although I could not live with no tomorrow, I thought maybe I could gain a sliver of wisdom that comes from eternity.

Initial encounters with Bill Murray’s Phil, and the small-town residents of Punxsutawney, induced alarmingly loud laughter — more than one housemate threw a concerned look my direction. It was then, mid-guffaw, I knew I needed to watch again.

Somewhere between the second and third time, my discreet snickers deflated to a tired recitation of the lines in my head. I felt reluctant to go on, but a rom-com this profound was surely worth the time.

By end of the fifth time, the movie’s repetition — my own repetition — seemed much more intentional. I was smiling, not just because of Phil’s crackling dry wit, but because a sort of cosmic truth had revealed itself.

The character of Phil arrives at the same truth from an analogous path.

At the beginning of the film he dismisses others with a glib irony, his insurance against unhappiness.

As he realizes he is reliving Groundhog Day, he responds with utter bemusement. This is followed by a series of gleeful romps — bank robbing, joyriding, womanizing — there are no consequences. But life has no meaning either, and he settles into a suicidal malaise.

Only by dedicating his time to self-improvement and establishing substantial relationships to others does he gain freedom.

Accepting that he cannot leave, he learns everything in his small world. He knows everyone, and he knows what will happen to them. He uses this knowledge to help — like saving a kid falling from a tree. He also cultivates absurdly specific skills, such as ice-sculpting. He becomes omniscient.

That my own experience did not contain supernatural elements is somewhat less important than I anticipated — the lesson is the same:

It is a sad truth that we must repeat ourselves to learn and live better. When experiencing déjà vu, it’s likely you have been there before, in one way or another.

Sometimes we can’t know when we’re wrong either — the universe isn’t always going to tell us right away. Living the adage, “learn from past mistakes” is somehow insufficient.

As many have pointed out, this embodies the concept of “eternal return,” given voice by Friedrich Nietzsche. Eternal return suggests that the universe (and all human beings), with infinite time, will inevitably repeat.

Nietzsche’s remedy to this existential problem is called “amor fati,” or loving fate. By affirming every moment in his life, good and bad, Phil conquers the acrimony he exudes on his first Groundhog Day. This awareness allows him to connect with those around him and live happily.

Nietzsche (Mr. “God is dead”), is not the only one with ties to the film. Proponents of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity preach Groundhog Day, with its themes of enlightenment and salvation.

This recurrence, this selfish paralysis, is not a problem bound by culture. Nor is it bound by time or space. Those laws don’t apply in the film, do they?

So how do we embrace our lives today? What can we take seriously when we are constantly inundated with messages from our phone, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, our TVs and our game consoles? It can be hard to tell how the present moment is more significant than the one just past, or the one coming.

These are questions worth repeating. With the answers we may be able to live more deliberate, meaningful lives in the present.

This Saturday happens to be Groundhog Day. If you keep your TV on, you are almost certain to meet Phil Connors. He’ll give you a philosophy lesson dressed up as a Bill Murray comedy.

If you are smart enough, you may only have to watch it once.

SEAN LENEHAN has programmed his alarm clock to play Sonny and Cher. He can be reached at splenehan@ucdavis.edu.

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