Without an afterlife, where will humans find purpose and meaning? Groundhog Day explores the possibilities with a cinematic parable.
Today is the second day of February, which means it’s once again time to discuss one of my favorite movies of all time: Groundhog Day. Few movies have stimulated as much philosophical and theological debate as this one has. There’s so much that could be said—and already has been said—about this movie.
About a decade after the movie’s release, the Museum of Modern Art produced a retrospective movie series about “film and faith,” and they had good reason to choose this movie to lead the series: After polling 35 leading critics of literature, religion, and film, they found that this movie came up so many times that the critics started fighting over who would get to write about it in the catalog. Like the original Matrix trilogy, Groundhog Day is an audiovisual dissertation on philosophy disguised as cinematic entertainment.
Who wouldn’t want a chance to get do-overs for their mistakes? And how many times have you wished you had all the time you need to read whatever you want to read, have all the conversations you want to have, learn to play an instrument, or maybe learn a foreign language?
It has some of my all-time favorite movie lines, but on a much deeper level Groundhog Day asks an existential question:
What if there were no tomorrow?
This metaphorical question strikes at the heart of an ongoing debate between naturalists and supernaturalists: What if there is no afterlife? How should we then live?
What would order our priorities and guide our choices if “tomorrow” (i.e. life in the hereafter) were removed from the equation?
After spending a long miserable day in his least favorite place in the world, Phil Conners (superbly played by Bill Murray) wakes up the next morning only to discover that he has to relive the same day again in the exact same miserable place. Then the next day, it happens again. And the next day, and the next, etc.
It’s hard to say how many times he has to endure this torturous purgatory. Estimates have ranged from a few weeks to thousands of years. It doesn’t really matter because, to someone truly immortal, the passage of time becomes a meaningless construct.
Thankfully, Harold Ramis chose to leave out the reason for Phil’s temporal imprisonment–something about a curse pronounced by a jaded ex-girlfriend. Instead, he comically explored the stages a person might go through upon learning that he can do whatever he wanted without any lasting consequences.
If you were to give a person whatever they wanted as many times as they wanted it, how might it change what they want?
Upon realizing that he can do whatever he likes—and that there are no lasting consequences for his actions—Phil first embarks on a hedonistic thrill-seeking adventure. He robs banks, evades cops, crashes cars, seduces women, and gorges himself on every unhealthy dish the local diner has to offer. Since there’s no meaningful punishment, there’s nothing to stop him from doing as he pleases.
But this only satisfies him for so long. Eventually, the novelty of it all wears off and he decides to set his sights a little higher.
The most interesting and attractive person in town is his producer, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), but she proves much more difficult to acquire. Intelligent, sensitive, and beautiful, she needs someone much more altruistic and self-actualized than Phil to sweep her off her feet.
He tries but fails to win her affections and soon descends into a period of nihilistic despair. He tries to take his own life a number of different ways, but he always wakes up again the next morning unscathed. No matter how bleak the days get, the sun comes up again in the morning and life goes on.
This pushes Phil to reevaluate what would truly make him happy. The sensual pleasures were fun for a while but we humans are complex and so are our needs.
Phil starts to read interesting books, learns to play jazz piano, learns to ice sculpt, and teaches himself French. His morning broadcast waxes poetic as he starts contemplating the deeper questions of human existence. Before long, this self-absorbed weather diva even learns to appreciate the company of people he previously thought were too far beneath him for his time and attention.
In time he learns that the enjoyment you receive from helping others satisfies something deeper than food, money, or sex could possibly satisfy. He learns the value of contributing to the lives of people around him–not because he would be rewarded the next day for his good behavior, but simply because it’s the most enjoyable way he could envision spending this eternally recurring day.
What Phil learned
People from a wide array of faiths and philosophies see their preferred worldview championed in this movie, so it’s no surprise that I would see my own in there as well. It seems to me that Groundhog Day comically illustrates the evolution and maturation of humankind from its baser survival instincts to a more refined and species-advancing pursuit of mutual edification and self-actualization.
Without the rewards and punishments of a “tomorrow” that never seems to come, we humans still find the motivation we need to pursue constructive goals that benefit everyone, not just ourselves. No fear of rewards or punishment in the afterlife are required for such things.
Supernaturalist viewers of this film are quick to point out that without a tomorrow, Phil immediately turns to selfish, exploitative pleasure-seeking. “That’s what happens,” they warn us, “when you believe this life is the only one there is. You will have no reason to do right.”
But even when I was a Christian, this trope didn’t sit right with me. I recall an episode of Veggie Tales that imagined a world without a belief in an afterlife, featuring cops who felt no motivation to chase down the bad guys because what would be the point? This is how you think when you believe your religion is the only thing able to make people good.
But Phil’s personal development didn’t end there, and neither does ours. Many of us who deconverted from our faiths did go through a transitional period in which we struggled to find our bearings. At a confusing time like this, some may very well make some foolish choices and follow impulses that are less mature.
As with anyone who learns something new, there is often a period of “adolescence” in which you know just enough to find fault with what others think but not enough to appreciate what parts they got right. The good news about adolescence is that you eventually grow out of it (or at least some people do).
As Phil matured, he got better acquainted with himself and with everyone else around him. His impressive knowledge of the intimate details of every person in town revealed that he had spent countless hours sitting and listening to people telling their stories–which is perhaps the most powerful education anyone could ever have. Through connecting with people so unlike him, he learned more than he alone could ever learn about what really makes a person happy—what makes life worth living.
He discovered that investing time and care into the lives of others made for a more fulfilling life. He had all the time in the world to try out every other way of living and that’s the one he chose in the end.
He would never land that dream job working for the big network, but he would find a way to make his day in Punxsutawney as meaningful as it could possibly be under the circumstances in which he found himself. This is what humans do if allowed the time and freedom to discover for themselves what truly makes us happy.
Some will want to stop the movie at Phil’s lowest point. That’s the end of the line as far as they’re concerned. For those people, nothing good can come from losing a belief in everlasting consequences. But that’s not how the movie ends, and my experience corroborates the message of the movie.
What I’ve seen in real life echoes what Groundhog Day suggests is true of human nature: We are equally capable of both great selfishness and noble altruism, but the enjoyment of the latter ultimately eclipses the thrill of the former if only you’ll give people the time and opportunity to figure that out.
In the end, Phil grew into his full potential as a human being. He learned to sympathize with others and to identify with them in their life situations. He learned compassion, empathy, cooperation, and humility. He also grew in his ability to love, and to appreciate beauty.
All of the external motivators were removed, and he became a better person for it—the kind of person that Rita wanted to be with in the first place. He broke the curse by becoming more than the man he was when he entered this purgatorial time loop. The next day finally arrived, and a new man greeted the morning, ready to find out what new things could be learned and explored.
Now let’s just all hope they never try a remake or a Groundhog Day 2, because this one is just perfect the way it is.