“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” – Angel, in “Ephiphany” (Angel episode)
So I’d written this whole long post (1600 words!) after finally watching Groundhog Day for the first time. I was having trouble shrinking it down to a more acceptable size, when I stepped away from the computer for a minute and suddenly realized this had all been said before, much more succinctly. That’s the quote above.
Groundhog Day is a terrible movie until it gets about halfway through. The character is totally unlikable and unredeemable, even when played by the extremely charming and funny Bill Murray. I think that’s why I’d never seen the movie all the way through before, my dad said he hadn’t seen it either even though I know he has a copy of it and he likes Bill Murray. We must have both been too annoyed to get to that turning point and start liking it.
But I’m glad I stuck it out, because it does get better and has some important lessons. I had previously thought that the point was basically him learning that being a jerk doesn’t get him anywhere, getting a girlfriend by being nice, and then moving on. But actually, by the end of the movie he’s stopped focusing much on the girl, or getting any sort of reward. (That makes it even more troubling that the movie uses the woman-as-reward trope, but I’ll have to deal with that in another post.) He’s just living his life, doing things that make him feel good, and he’s learned by this point that he’s happiest when he helps other people and makes them happy.
That’s a good message, but there’s a better one. When he first starts helping people, one of the first is a homeless man he’s been passing since the beginning. At some point he seems to realize he has nothing to lose by giving away all his money, he’ll get it back in the morning, so he hands the guy all of it. Later he sees the same guy struggling to walk down the street, takes him to a hospital, and finds out from the nurse that he dies anyway. The next day he takes him to a restaurant and makes sure he’s well-fed, only to see him die that night anyway. He has to learn that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do, people are still going to die and bad things are still going to happen no matter how hard you try to stop it.
That experience paints the rest of his actions in a different light. Even when he does manage to help people, it’s only for that day. The constant reset means the same boy is going to fall out of the tree and the same man is going to choke on his steak every day, regardless of whether Phil (the protagonist) is there to help them. If he chooses to ignore it they’ll still wake up unharmed the next day, and if he chooses to help they’ll still need saving tomorrow. And while there is occasionally some form of reward (he’s the town hero by the end of the film), sometimes there isn’t. By the end of the movie he helps people while knowing they’ll never thank him and seems too busy doing things that make him happy to focus much on the praise people heap on him. The reward isn’t the point anymore, he’s just learned that making other people happy makes him feel better too.
Watching the movie, I get the impression he’s spent most of his time since coming to this realization helping people. He does the same thing every day, just making sure to be in the places where he’s needed at that moment. It works in the movie, where time is compressed and we only have to experience it once. In real life, constantly only helping other people is a really good way to get compassion fatigue, definitely not a desirable outcome. It’s important to spend time on ourselves, not taking too much responsibility for other people. But recognizing that everything really is too big to make a difference and that things only matter on a small scale can help.
We aren’t (can’t be) responsible for fixing every problem, it’s okay to take a breath and do something we enjoy for ourselves, even knowing there are people outside who need help. There are always people who need help, and we will never be able to help all of them. Sometimes the only person we can help is ourselves, and it’s okay to spend time doing things to make ourselves happy. Nothing we do will fix everything, all the old problems will be back tomorrow. All that matters is what we do with today.