Humans don’t like limitations. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. The drive to transcend what we are has led to great advances in many areas of science and technology. Heart valves and airplanes, cars and dental implants, satellites and toy poodles; they all come from our desire to do things that are denied to us naturally.
The desire to be more than we are has had many outlets in art, especially in recent science fiction and fantasy. Never mind that theories in science tell us that travel faster than the speed of light is impossible, some discovery will show us how, and Captain Kirk will be off going where no one has gone before.
No limitation vexes us more than the limit to our lifespan. Scripture says, “Human life will be 120 years” (Gen 6:3), but we’d like to break that barrier. Why not live forever?
One movie that posits a novel solution to the problem is Groundhog Day (1993) starring Bill Murray as Phil Conners, the cynical TV weatherman sent to cover the yearly observance of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He is a man whose horizon goes no farther than himself. Selfish doesn’t even cover the depths of his narcissism. After the first morning with the famous groundhog, Phil wakes to find the day repeating itself, not once but over and over again. This is not the kind of immortality we might normally pick, but why not? Let’s give it a go!
After Phil gets over the initial shock and realizes he is living the same day over and over (and not just going crazy), he begins to do the sorts of things you’d want to do if you knew there would be no consequences. Seducing women, stealing money, drinking heavily (no hangover the next morning is only the least of the apparent benefits) — these are the things that Phil indulges himself in. Certainly, when we think of “life without end,” we have in mind some kind of never ending party.
In a remarkable turn, Phil discovers a deep truth. This sort of life is no life, and Phil spirals into despair. He attempts to use the omnipotence of his position to gain a night with the object of his desire, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), but he fails. With no further purpose, Phil tries again and again to kill himself. He tries electrocution, jumping from a great height, walking in front of a speeding bus, even trying to kill Punxsutawney Phil (no accident on the names), but to no avail. He remains trapped.
So he returns to Rita, and convinces her that he is reliving the day. She agrees to spend the day with him, and that day changes him. He wakes the next repeat morning committed to making himself into someone Rita could love.
It is easy to miss what changed in Phil. The obvious Hollywood answer is the romantic love between Phil and Rita. But that was merely the catalyst. His orientation went from self-centered to other-centered. The transcending of time was not the main barrier to be breached; it was the interior barrier between Phil and the rest of the world.
But the temporary setting aside of the finitude we live under with respect to time was just that, temporary. Contained within Phil’s very long day were reminders of the limited character of our humanity. Phil’s clever use of the repeating day could not win him love, nor could it ultimately save life.
Groundhog Day ultimately gives a seal of approval to the limitations of humanity. The winter storm that traps them in Punxsutawney is both a reminder of what we cannot do, and a work of a sort of Providence. Our limits are what makes us who we are. When Phil faces his limitations and does what he can, he finds a purpose in serving others. In a remarkable scene near the end of the movie, Rita “buys” Phil in a bachelor auction. Her bid is such that it is clear she is cleaning out her checking account. In effect, she has sold all she has for a “pearl of great price.” Phil has become this pearl, a man that Rita can love, but, more importantly, a man who loves the world.
Charlie Clauss’s other posts may be found here.