Finding Meaning: Groundhog Day, Again

By Skip Hellewell

I had a great time last Sunday—attending three Laguna churches. Started at Laguna Presbyterian, with its historic sanctuary nicely restored. I then popped in at St. Francis by the Sea, with its cozy jewel box chapel. Finally, I attended St. Mary’s Episcopal, with its spirited pastor, the Rev. Mackenzie. Besides a friendly welcome, each offered an encouraging message about that transcendental human desire—becoming a better person. It’s timely because Groundhog Day is next Thursday. Let me explain.

Each Groundhog Day, the Beautiful Wife and I watch a movie of that name, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. It’s 30 years old, but you might recall Murray plays the character of Phil Connors, an egocentric TV weatherman who detests the annual trip to what he considers a hick town, Punxsutawney, Penn., to cover Groundhog Day. The enchanting MacDowell plays the producer of his weather program, who, in her innocence, finds beauty in all she sees. In his sarcastic, condescending way, Phil despises everything—except the lovely McDowell. He’s strongly attracted to her, but his bad behavior ruins the day for everyone.

The following day is different from every other morning for Phil because it isn’t different—it’s the same day he’s reliving. Poor Phil first thinks he’s crazy: he knows he’s repeating Groundhog Day, but no one else does. It’s as if a day of life is so precious that if one ruins it badly enough, that person just might be required to relive the day repeatedly until he gets it right.

Phil goes through a sequence of moods, at first incredulous, then angry, then predatory. He uses the repeating days to learn everything about MacDowell’s life for the purpose of seduction. It doesn’t work; MacDowell intuitively senses his insincerity. When, in desperation, he reveals what is happening, she makes an optimistic observation: “Maybe it’s not a curse, Phil. It just depends on how you look at it.” At this moment, Phil takes a fresh look.

What man, overcome with love for a woman, hasn’t been inspired to earnest self-improvement? MacDowell studied French poetry in college; Phil learns French. She likes music; he begins piano lessons. Groundhog Day includes an ice sculpture contest; Phil learns to ice sculpt to capture her beauty. He studies the town to see how he might be of service, running from place to place as help is needed. He exhausts himself daily in the pursuit of—a perfect day.

How long does this last? By the rule-of-thumb of 10,000 hours to master a complex skill, it’s at least 30 or so years, but Phil wasted time in a vicious downward spiral until inspired to begin what became an upward virtuous cycle where good inspires greater good. The time is unknown, but by tedious repetition, Phil slowly masters a single day. In the process, he comes to love Punxsutawney and its people. Finally, it all comes together—one day, lived perfectly. MacDowell sees the new Phil and is strongly attracted to him. Happy ending.

We’re at the fifth anniversary of “Finding Meaning,” so this is my sixth time telling the story of Phil Murray, his love for Andie MacDowell, and the refining process of a man seeking to become worthy of a woman’s love. Looking over past versions, I think the story’s getting better, but not yet perfect. Like Phil, I’ll keep trying. This brings us back to Laguna’s churches and their important place in our eternal pursuit of becoming better people. There’s meaning in that.

Bio: Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

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