Rewatching Groundhog Day in 2020

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Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” says Aristotle. In other words, it is the accumulation of doing and becoming that manifests progress in the long run. We can say that an excellent life is made of excellent decades, of excellent years, and hence excellent days. So what is a day well lived?

In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is trapped in the same day, and his life is reduced to an inescapable repetition thereof. The time-loop premise is similar to many popular movies, like Back to the Future, A Christmas Carol, etc, in which the subject relives a certain event, and could do things differently to alter the future outcome. But instead of seeing his action manifest in the future, Phil is brought right back to where he starts every time, to the beginning of Groundhog Day.

On every reset, Phil is forced to take a very close look at his own life of just one day, like that of a terminally ill patient — he has to fulfill his wishes before the end of the day, either for personal satisfaction or for seeking an escape. Although seemingly he is allowed to transcend through memory, learning, and growth, the world at large remains static and oblivious. To make things worse, he is trapped geographically in a small town, amid a winter storm, so he could never reach the wider world. He very soon realizes his ability to transcend is denied without the participation of the world.

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Source: MinutePhysics at YouTube

In this, we are asked another question — could individuals flourish without the participation of others? That is, can selfishness or asceticism enable individuals to attain an excellent life. Through the game of repetition, the answer implied in the movie is no.

In our society, our behavior is constrained by the Hobbesian term social contract — if we step beyond the norm, we get pushed back. Infants are ignorant and don’t understand such a concept, so their bad actions are tolerated. If adults are given such free rein, their immediate reaction would be to indulge and exploit. Such is the premise of popular movies like The Purge, in which people are given an annual holiday to do anything without the inhibition of the law — lo and behold, killing and looting ensue.

In Thomas Hobbes’ theory, humans are born immoral, prone to transgress others. It is only through repeated social interactions of tit-for-tat, do they learn to adapt good behavior. In a liberal society, the contract is lenient, and people are encouraged in trials and errors; in a conservative society, the contract is strict, and people obey the rules by the book.

According to Hobbes, without social contract and punishment, existence becomes a hedonic addiction. The problem is, chasing highs after high satiates the body and not the soul. What seems like an advantage could soon set one back — a hedonic treadmill. It is not surprising then, that Phil’s hedonic spree turns into a suicide spree, as he loses interest in the material world. What he learns through his nihilistic trials-and-errors is that always being a taker and never a giver ends in an existential void because happiness is not a zero-sum game. It is necessitated and enhanced by the participation of others. Then, as an infant learns from a blank slate through social interactions, he re-habituates being human: being a good citizen, acquiring the arts to nourish the self and please the others, loving the beloved while not expecting anything in return.

Through hundreds of repetitions, Phil finally realizes that life should not be about chasing after lofty goals in the future but instead about making each day uniquely excellent. That existence shouldn’t need to be suffering but instead full of opportunity to transcend and become. That transcendence should not be selfish, but instead full of love.

“A thousand-mile journey begins with the first step,” so says Lao-tzu in Tao Te Ching, which resonates nicely with Aristotle’s saying at the beginning of the article. In a similar vein, Jeff Bezos of Amazon Inc dubs Day One as the corporate motto, in that every day should be as new, and as full of possibility as the first day — Day One is excellence, Day Two is stasis, Day Three is irrelevance, Day Four is decline, Day Five is death. It sounds biblical, but he arrives at the same conclusion as Lao-tzu and Aristotle. A good life begins not somewhere distant in the future through if’s and then’s, but right now, with good effort.

A Canadian in New York. Philosophy, economics, history, literature, and art.

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