The news of Harold Ramis’ passing spread quickly through the entertainment industry to the fans of his many films including classics such as Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack.
I will leave it to more qualified people to comment on Ramis’ acting, writing, and directing legacy, which is considerable.
Instead, I want to focus briefly on what I see as the spiritual insight of Ramis’ masterpiece, Groundhog Day. The movie, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, has become part of American lore. The US Natural Film Registry recognizes the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But the comic genius of the story may be covering up what I believe is a profound spiritual truth at the heart of the movie.
In Groundhog Day, the character played by Bill Murray (Phil Conners) plays a weather man who has been sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover Groundhog Day. Caught in a vicious time loop, Conners finds himself living the same day over and over again, down to stepping in the same icy puddle every day. Eventually he sinks into a profound sense of depression and apathy, as he has the same conversations over and over again, reliving the same misery. Not surprisingly, life loses all meaning for him, and his relationships become routine and meaningless: He lives in a rut of existence. Ultimately, it is when he meets the Andie MacDowell character and falls in love that leads him to snap out of the rut he has been in and begin to live truly, fully.
The Bill Murray character is so perfectly cast, and so totally over the top, that it becomes easy to lose oneself in the movie’s comic genius and eventual romantic happy ending. So where is the spiritual insight?
The truth of the matter is that many of us find ourselves living in a rut. We laugh at Phil Conners, but many of us find ourselves living the same day over and over again:
alarm goes off, get up, shower, breakfast, commute to work, work, lunch, work, commute to home, dinner, TV, Facebook, sleep, alarm goes off, get up, shower, breakfast, commute to work, work, lunch, work, commute to home, dinner, TV, Facebook, sleep, alarm goes off, get up, shower, breakfast, commute to work, work, lunch, work, commute to home, dinner, TV, Facebook, sleep, alarm goes off, get up, shower, breakfast, commute to work, work, lunch, work, commute to home, dinner, TV, Facebook, sleep, alarm goes off….
We laugh at Bill Murray, because we too step in the same puddle every day, the same tensions with the same people every day. The misery accumulates, and we find ourselves unable to escape, or find a different way of living.
Here is the genius of Ramis’ spiritual realization: love breaks the rut of existence.
Love restores something fresh, something new, to life.
As Rumi says, Love makes a king into a slave, makes copper into gold. Love is alchemy, transforming all that is base into precious. Love makes the rut of life and transforms it into something precious.
One shouldn’t confuse a precious life with “excitement.” Not all of love is about crazy passion. That too is lovely, and often a stage in romantic love. But the crazy excitement doesn’t tend to last, nor is all love romantic. Rather, what endures is the way in which in love, in real love, something of the eternal opens up in the here and now.
This love, whether love for a child, a parent, a sibling, a partner, a friend, a neighbor, a stranger, restores beauty and dignity to the Now, that only moment in which we ever live.
The meaning is not something imposed from outside, from above. In love, the cycle of meaningless rut is broken, and we get to live an existence is fresh, meaningful, and present.
The Zen tradition, the Islamic mystical tradition, pretty much all mystical traditions talk about this need to be fully present here and now, and often they emphasize the need for love and compassion. Ramis’ Groundhog Day made the same point through an unforgettable movie, perfectly cast, beautifully told.
It is because of movies like this that a friend told me recently: If the prophets had been born today, they would be making movies, or composing songs. And one would hope, those movies would be movies like Groundhog Day.
Rest in Peace, Harold Ramis.
May you find the meaning and beauty that your movie has brought to so many, including me.
Inna lilah wa inna ilayhi raji’un.