I made the mistake of watching Groundhog Day for the first time during the summer I was studying for the bar exam. I was trapped in the living nightmare of studying the same material, every day, with seemingly no end in sight. The tragedy and central comic conceit of the storyline, that of the main character, weatherman Phil Connors, being forced to relive the same day—Groundhog Day—perfectly captured my angst, and I laughed at his pain because I shared it. As sheer entertainment, the film served its purpose of distracting me for an evening, but I caught glimpses of certain spiritual lessons to be gleaned from Phil’s journey lingering beyond my grasp at the time, stretched as I was to the breaking point. Now, five years past that terrible summer, the regular rhythms of work and the settled everyday humdrum of existence have lulled me into a similar impatience and dissatisfaction with life. On this Groundhog Day, however, the film’s 30th anniversary, I have finally found the time to devote to understanding the lessons the film tried to teach me on my initial viewing and to applying them in my life.
When we as viewers first meet Phil Connors (Bill Murray), he is a singularly unpleasant individual. A narcissistic local weatherman with delusions of grandeur—he claims he “makes the weather”—he disrespects those beneath him and sneers at his assignment to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the titular rodent will predict whether the nation will experience six more weeks of winter based on whether he sees his shadow. On camera, Phil openly scoffs at the small town, its country denizens, and the groundhog itself, to the chagrin of his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), whose kindness and humanity stand in stark contrast to Phil’s condescending attitude. Phil’s plotting to get out of Dodge at the end of the day is foiled when the blizzard he predicted would not hit arrives and traps him in Punxsutawney overnight.
The furry Phil’s sight of his shadow portends more than just six weeks of winter when the human Phil wakes up, morning after morning, to relive Groundhog Day again. To make matters worse, he is the only person cognizant of this hellish predicament. Far from being simply a plot device, the time loop has deeper implications and lays the foundation for the film’s philosophical musings. It embodies the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, a thought experiment he expressed most concisely in his book The Gay Science:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
One of my most vivid college memories is of a horrified classmate, a graduating senior, telling my favorite professor during a lecture on eternal recurrence that he did not wish to remain a college senior for eternity. Once he finished laughing, our professor explained that the object of the demon’s challenge is not a given set of our external circumstances; rather, Nietzsche intended for eternal recurrence to force us to reflect on our “present state of being.”
Phil’s journey bears this out. Although the time loop necessarily involves the repetition of the outside world, Phil’s inner state is the film’s true concern. Phil’s four responses to his predicament over the course of the film represent and measure his spiritual growth. First, furious to be trapped in the podunk Punxsutawney, Phil mourns why he could not instead be reliving what he considered a good day: eating lobster and drinking piña coladas on the Virgin Islands and “mak[ing] love like sea otters” with a one-night stand. Spurred on by the drunks at the bar who egg him on his belief that life is meaningless, he embraces hedonism head-on: he flaunts his job, robs a bank, and seduces Nancy, a lovely Punxsutawney local. Rita, unimpressed by Phil’s excesses as she watches him smoke and devour desserts at the TipTop Café, quotes Sir Walter Scott to him: “The wretch, concentred all in self / Living, shall forfeit fair renown, / And doubly dying, shall go down / To the vile dust, from whence he sprung/ Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” This kind of self-gratification—eating, drinking, and being merry, per Ecclesiastes 8:15—only drags us into the double death of physical and spiritual decay and can never truly satisfy us, as Phil eventually discovers in the emptiness this life offers.
Phil’s second response to the time loop takes a more philosophical bent. His interest in Rita is more than merely professional, and Phil now tries to learn all he can about her—her likes, her dislikes, her educational background (she studied 19th century French poetry, which explains her lyrical approach to life), and her romantic preferences. At first blush, this approach seems to be an improvement, but it soon reveals itself as simply a more targeted version of the hedonism he first displayed. Phil’s only genuine interaction with Rita comes during an unscripted snowball fight with the local children, followed by a spontaneous dance in a gazebo, when she joyfully observes that a day like this cannot be planned. But this is, in fact, exactly Phil’s goal. In an effort to recreate his Virgin Islands day, he is trying to script the perfect day with Rita so that he knows best how to seduce her at its close. When he says he loves her, Rita fires back that he does not even know her—a seemingly strange remark to a man who has spent literally weeks figuring out her every fancy, but it identifies Phil’s grave error in judgment: he mistakes compiling a catalog of facts and preferences about Rita as a substitute for knowing her, directly and intimately. Phil’s utilitarian tactics betray his main spiritual sickness of selfishness, which Rita recognizes when she expresses her disgust for his list. After this exchange, all of Phil’s attempts with Rita end in disaster. Despite being captivated by her beauty, both inward and outward, he cannot possess that beauty for himself by possessing her physically.
This self-awareness of his failings, although a step in the right spiritual direction, plunges Phil into his third response: pure despair. On camera, he morosely predicts that the upcoming winter will be cold and gray, and will “last you for the rest of your life.” His increasingly frenzied suicide attempts even come to involve the furry Phil, whose death the human Phil rationalizes will somehow break the time loop. Phil correctly recognizes the wretched state of his soul, but the time loop will not allow him such an easy escape as physical death: merely killing himself will not bring about the internal change he so desperately needs.
At last, Phil returns to Rita, this time sincerely confiding in her about the time loop and candidly admitting he is a “jerk.” Her insight that his predicament might not be a curse, depending on how he chooses to look at it, combined with his heartfelt confession that he does not deserve her—but would love her for the rest of his life if he did—mark the shift toward his final and fourth response that breaks the time loop. Phil abandons his endless chase of Rita and instead dedicates himself to various acts of kindness. He gives to the poor, brings coffee to the set for Rita and Larry, the station’s cameraman and driver, and even takes an unprecedented interest in Larry’s personal life. When asked whether six more weeks of winter are in store, Phil hints at the change in himself with his reply: “Winter wears a smiling face and dreams of spring.”
Phil’s last Groundhog Day signals his total change of heart, with two remarks in particular on that day revealing his transformation. He turns the broadcast on Punxsutawney Phil into a celebration of the day, the townspeople, and the town itself, and his conclusion of the segment demonstrates his full acceptance of his fate: “Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here. . . . I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.” His remarkable rejection of Rita’s coffee invitation in favor of running “some errands” validates how completely he has changed: he catches a child falling from a tree, replaces a flat tire for several elderly ladies, and performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man choking to death. He ends the day by not only attending but leading the town’s Groundhog Day party. Now genuinely intrigued by Phil, Rita bets on him at the eligible bachelor auction and wins. As she marvels at the beautiful snow angel he sculpts in her honor, Phil makes his second revelatory declaration: “I know your face so well I could’ve done it with my eyes closed. . . . No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now, because I love you.” And with this, the time loop is broken: the next morning is, at long last, February 3rd. The pristine white snow covering Punxsutawney symbolizes Phil’s rebirth as he and Rita walk forward into the new day together—after, of course, he has asked her what he can do for her that day. In the film’s final moments, he announces to Rita, “Let’s live here!”—Punxsutawney, the very place he has spent the entire film trying to escape.
These three comments together might suggest Phil’s affirmation of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, which was how I initially interpreted them. After all, they confirm that Phil has not only accepted his fate of being trapped in the time loop but learned to love it, even when finally given the chance to leave. But the glee Phil obviously experiences at the thought of living in Punxsutawney, combined with his intense (and finally true) love for Rita, are fundamentally at odds with the grim resignation necessarily accompanying an affirmation of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. For Nietzsche, as his biographer and translator Walter Kaufmann explains, the doctrine of eternal recurrence has an “essential connection” to his concept of the Übermensch, best translated as “overman,” whose “will to power” leads him to create meaning to impose onto the nihilistic meaninglessness of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche’s self-professed “measure for greatness” is amor fati, or the love of fate, whereby one wishes for all to be the same throughout eternity, and “not merely bear[s] what is necessary . . . but love[s] it.” Another Nietzsche scholar, Stine Holt, explains that these ideas together enable the individual to find Nietzsche’s “innocence of becoming,” where the imposition of the individual’s creative will wipes clean his feelings of sin and guilt. Thus, as Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’—that alone I should call redemption.”
In Nietzsche, then, we find redemption only in power and in the erasure of our feelings of guilt, not in the actual erasure of our sins. This “redemption” fits in the framework of his worldview, where God is dead and we are His murderers. But Phil finds redemption not in power but in transformative love, and his resulting joy belongs not a dead and deadening world of brute force, but to the world of the living, a pulsating, wildly flourishing existence brimming with possibilities eagerly awaiting us to find them if only we first submit to love instead of seeking dominance. Phil’s final response that frees him from his cage is thus not the longsuffering acceptance of eternal recurrence, but rather the delighted discovery and reception of our living God’s everlasting youth that G.K. Chesterton described. A journalist and forerunner of the world’s greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton wrote in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy, in answer to critics of the faith who claim the repetitive quality of the natural world militates against the existence of a personal God,
Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
The repetitive nature of Phil’s final response, as initially expressed in his imitation of Rita’s kindness and continued in his suggestion to live in Punxsutawney, demonstrates this Chestertonian “appetite of infancy.” Phil’s abandonment of his selfish pursuit of Rita, while reminiscent of Nietzsche’s amor fati, is not an endorsement of the Buddhist ideal of nirvana that maintains only the extinguishment of our desires will make us happy. No, Phil’s strong desire for Rita is unchecked, but it now manifests itself as a life-giving action rather than as a soulless game of possession seeking its own gratification. Love, rather than ownership, becomes his goal, and this not as a passive state of simply experiencing fleeting feelings, but as an ongoing action—not only toward Rita, but all he encounters—that molds Phil’s character, just as his icepick chisels his snow sculpture of Rita.
By turning itself outward, Phil’s desire for Rita transforms itself into selfless love, and with it his entire character. Phil draws closer to Rita by becoming virtuous himself, which reorients his entire attitude toward the time loop, because with virtue, he also gains hope. Crucially, that hope is not that Rita will love him in return, which would render his happiness conditional as dependent on the outcome. He acknowledges this by recognizing he cannot control her response when he says he will love her no matter what happens tomorrow. Rather, Phil now lives with the hope that, come what may, he can face the future because he has become a man deserving of Rita’s love and worthy of human fellowship. By choosing to engage in virtuous actions, Groundhog Day after Groundhog Day, he wears the grooves of life-giving love into his soul. These acts of love are small and repetitive, and can often be wearing and thankless. Ask any married couple: the greatest threat to marriage lies in managing the mundane matters of everyday life that are often swept aside in the first thrills of love. Paradoxically, however, tending to these tedious and seemingly insignificant issues equips us to overcome the creeping danger of apathy, because when we continually choose to infuse those actions with love, they cumulatively stoke the fire of our affections and keep our love ablaze. The very framework of routine that we scorn as tiresome becomes the scaffold of vitality providing structure and breathing life into our existence.
Far from being limited to the love of married couples, this universal wisdom holds true across all relationships and areas of life. Although Rita is certainly not God, Phil’s imitation of her character serves as a microcosm of how to break the deadly cycle of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence through modeling the Christian calling to imitate Jesus. Only through active imitation of Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit indwelling in us, can our sanctification be accomplished. Jesus reminds us in John 14:15 that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments; similarly, James 2:17 reminds us that faith without works is dead. This does not suggest a works-based salvation, but instead that by following the loving path of Jesus, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling because it leads us into the mysterious confluence of body and mind as our works both express our faith and bolster it.
In Phil’s Groundhog Day journey, I have come to see not a death-dealing acquiescence to Nietzsche’s demonic eternal recurrence, but rather a joyful affirmation of Chesterton’s exultant monotony through the discovery of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. When we choose to enter into God’s world of “a theatrical encore,” in Chesterton’s words, we also choose to participate in the triune divine life as we engage in the small acts of love that, on the surface, seem stultifying.
But when animated by God’s dynamic love that drives the entire cosmos, they fortify us to strike out into tomorrow with hope, for they give us the eyes of faith to find the substance of that hope and to discover the evidence of things not seen. With our souls strengthened from these long winters—whatever those may be for each of us—when we wake up from our own Groundhog Days to find the world different, we have learned to bless them, because they anchored our souls in the only solid ground to be found. Without enduring a winter, we would not be prepared for the changes that spring brings. When we repeat these small acts of love, we, like Phil, thaw the ice in our souls so that we may wear a smiling face as we dream of the blossoms of spring.