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Our Sophomores Are Still "New"Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer
When we began adjusting to the idea of quarantine, social distancing and working from home nearly a year ago, the idea of all that free time was both delightful for its novelty and terrifying for its reality.
The long stretches which once used to be filled with commutes to and from work, meals out with friends, weekend outings and more were suddenly replaced with existential periods of uninvited house-arrest.
But, with this new temporal unmooring, we also had the liberty to conjure grand plans for how we’d make the most of the seemingly infinite quarantine that lay ahead of us. My brother was going to become a wine sommelier! I was going to finish knitting the scarf I started making for my mom in 2013! But the most common plan undertaken by the majority of my friends and family (and probably the most realistic one, too) was to finally get around to those films and novels we’d always meant to start but never had the time for. Thus the emergence of the near-universal Great Quarantine Movie (or Book, TV Show, Hobby) List.
I’m convinced we’ve all made these — filed in the dusty area of our brains or stashed away with other paper scraps and jottings. As one week of quarantine turned into monotonous and unstructured months and seasons, we’re working through our checklists hoping to make one day different from the next. Which brings me to Groundhog Day.
If you haven’t seen the 1993 film (and maybe it will mostly be new to my generation rather than to our parents!), here’s a brief, largely spoiler-free plot synopsis. Phil, a jaded TV weatherman played by Bill Murray, is (much to his annoyance) assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. His disdain for the town and everyone in it colors his visit and his reporting, and the miserable trip culminates with a blizzard that leaves him no choice but to stay the night. Resentful, and ready to leave as soon as humanly possible, Phil wakes up the next morning only to discover he’s reliving the same day as before.
With no idea how to free himself from this time loop, Phil must go on a journey of self-discovery as he lives the same day over (and over and over) again… possibly forever.
Groundhog Day (February 2, 2021) is around the corner but the main reason to watch this movie now is because, having lived almost a year full of indistinguishable days, Phil’s plight seems more relevant than ever and I think we can all learn something from his fictional experience.
At this point I'll caution that there are more substantial spoilers ahead, so readers be warned! That said, I won’t give away much about specific plot points, because what I find truly applicable to our year of living, working and going to school almost entirely at home, day after day, is how Phil’s attitude about his situation changes.
When he first picks up on what's happening, his initial reaction is disbelief, and he writes off his identical day as a strong case of déjà vu. I could relate to that, remembering how, after my first week of online classes, I was still clinging to the belief that maybe my next day of quarantine-style living would be miraculously exciting or, at the very least, notably different. Phil, like the rest of us, quickly realizes that this feeling of unpleasant familiarity isn't going to fade unless he does something about it.
His next move is to recognize that, if he is continually transported back to a moment in time that precedes the events of every duplicate day he lives, he’ll never face the repercussions of what he does. This leads him to behavior that is unhealthy, mean, selfish and sometimes illegal. I’m sure many of us can identify with Phil’s feelings of exasperation and unhappiness. I know I spent the beginning of my quarantine indulging in a few too many late-night Netflix binges, junk food days and ill-advised online shopping sprees. Phil might’ve thought, I’ll never see tomorrow, so what does it matter if I get caught? In my own case, I felt like saying, I’m not returning to normal life anytime soon, so who cares?
After seeing that even his most self-destructive behavior won’t rid him of living the time loop, Phil falls into a depression, all his efforts focused on finding a way to end the cycle. Again, I could relate — for a significant part of last year, I had difficulty finding purpose or joy in day-to-day tasks because I felt the pandemic might never end. The next stage of the movie is what gave me a new outlook and what makes me think we might all want to watch the film right now, because at this point, Phil changes his objective.
Phil realizes that leaning into hopelessness isn’t doing him any good. The time loop (like this period of stay-at-home orders, quarantine and uncertainty) is out of his hands. Trying to stop it is a waste of energy and only makes him more despondent. In the same way, hating quarantine and virtual school and spending all my energy wishing the situation were different isn’t going to change my circumstances except to make me miserable.
What’s left for Phil, and for us, is to try to make the most of this time — and also to get outside our own heads and think about what might make other people happy and the world a better place.
Phil uses his time warp to learn a new language, start playing the piano, and help others with his knowledge of what’s going to happen on his perpetual February the 2nd. Though we don’t have any magical foresight, we do have the time to enrich our lives, extend a hand to others in the ways we are able to, and choose — especially if we are lucky enough right now to be employed, healthy and sheltered — to try our best to view this period as an opportunity.
Whether Phil makes it out of the loop and/or finds love with Rita (his sweet, lovely producer played by Andie MacDowell) I’ll leave you to discover on your own! But for me, and maybe you, the lesson can be the same. In circumstances we didn’t want or choose, we can either embrace hopelessness and focus only on getting out of the cycle (something we have no power over anyway), or we can devote our energy to learning new things, building healthier relationships and striving toward positive patterns.
This Groundhog Day, I’m resolved to shift my focus onto what is in my control (maybe I’ll even finish that scarf!). Ultimately, for all of us, I hope that Groundhog Day might be the little reminder we need to stay positive. At the very least, you have one more film to add to your Quarantine Movie List.
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