Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis from Wikipedia

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?

Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell

Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell from wikipedia

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.

Rumi:   Task is not to seek love

Rumi: Task is not to seek love from Author's collection

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.

3 Comments

  1. If there is a heaven, it has a special place there for comedians.

    http://www.jewishmag.com/64mag/rabbibroka/rabbibroka.htm
    One of the well-known legends in the Talmud deals with Rabbi Broka who was a very holy man. Elijah the prophet would often come down from heaven to visit him. One time when Rabbi Broka was walking through the bustling market place of his city, Elijah the prophet accompanied him. Seeing all of the bustle and hustle of the city market place, being impressed with its intense activity with the myriad throngs of assembled people, Rabbi Broka turned to Elijah the prophet and asked him if any of the people here were destined to enter heaven.

    Elijah, to whom the secrets of heaven were revealed, scanned the large market place with his eyes and then shook his head and told him that no one here was destined for the next world.

    As they continued on, Elijah suddenly spotted two men and pointed them out to Rabbi Broka. “These two men are destined for the next world,” he told Rabbi Broka.

    Excitedly, Rabbi Broka ran towards them. He wanted to learn from them what it was that they did or what merit they possessed that earned them the good fortune to be destined to enter heaven. Stopping them in the middle of the market place, he pointedly asked them what they do.

    They replied that they were clowns. They continued explaining to Rabbi Broka that when they ever they see someone who is sad or depressed, they go and cheer him up. When they see two people who are angry with each other, they go to they and joke around with them and make them friends again.

  2. Reading this made me think that the process of making meaning (which is also my pet definition for religion) is much-used, and it is a hopeful one. I wonder, though, why the conclusion is inevitably reached that there is meaning to be found or made. Would Groundhog Day have anything useful to say if it had ended halfway through? Is such a movie not something a Prophet would make? So let’s say we love, and it breaks us out of our rut, and makes us happy. So what? What actually is the meaning, the dignity that has been added to life?

    I ask these questions not to be contradictory, but because I think it has real implications for policy. To the extent that “meaning” can be defined, we can put policies in place to help create it. If we can’t define meaning for anyone reliably except ourselves (if even then) then it says a lot about how we should conduct society. It’s interesting that Professor Safi’s friend said that modern prophets would make movies and music. The reactions to someone now denying the spiritual truth of Groundhog Day are quite different to someone denying the spiritual truth of the Torah or the Qur’an. That’s probably for the best.

    RIP Harold Ramis

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