Every spring in my household, we experience a period we have come to call Groundhog Day. I’ve always loved the Bill Murray movie of the same name, a sweet fable about an egocentric, mean-spirited newscaster doomed to live the same day over and over until he learns to care about others and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
My sweetheart Dave moonlights as a tax preparer, and every year at the beginning of February, he begins his Groundhog Day schedule. He works a full day at his day job, evenings and Saturdays at a CPA’s office, and sees his own clients late at night and on Sundays. Somehow, I always seem to have a major writing deadline during the same period. With Dave not around to keep me company, I often work 12-hour days.
Somewhere around mid-March, we start saying to each other in the morning, “Is it Groundhog Day again?” As we feed the cats and brush our teeth and stumble off to work, it feels like we’ve already done this day a thousand times before.
For us, this phase only lasts the twelve weeks until April 15. Then we take our annual trip to Hawaii, and return home to a more normal existence that includes time for learning, play, contemplation, and rest. But I remember the days before I learned how to live a balanced life, when Groundhog Day was 365 days per year.
I see many of my students and readers now trapped in the same cycle of endless work and responsibility. Their day begins with making breakfast and lunch for the whole family, getting everyone dressed, and delivering them where they need to be. Then they’re off to work. If they commute, they’re often checking voice mail and making calls on the way.
After a full day at the job, it’s time to ferry the kids to or from their next activity. Eventually, everyone gets fed, then there is more work to do for the boss or their business, housecleaning or repairs to be done, volunteer work, or yet another activity for the kids. By the time they lie down at night, there’s often six hours or less before it’s time to get up and do it all again. Weekends get filled up with more of the same. It seems there’s always something important scheduled and pressing errands to run. And there’s never enough time to sleep.
What living like this does to you is not only exhaust your body, it hardens your heart. Even if you began with the best intentions — to do a good job for your family, your employer, your clients, and your community — when there is no time to breathe, you start to emotionally shut down. In addition to chronic illnesses caused by the physical strain, you develop a short temper, selfish attitude, and a world view that ends at the tip of your nose.
Selfish, you say? Me? When I spend so much time doing things for others? But the question to ask yourself is, are they the right things?
Are you a real companion to your children or their grumpy chauffeur? Are you a true partner to your spouse or an exhausted cook? Are you really doing your best for your boss or your clients, or are you stretched so thin that your work is often barely adequate? How many of the activities in which you are engaged are really the best use of you? And how can you know if you never have the energy to look beyond the next five minutes?
If you’re not happy with the answers these questions provoke, maybe it’s time to wake up from Groundhog Day. In the movie, Bill Murray’s character Phil finally wakes up to a new day when he starts making different choices. At first, Phil spends all his time trying to “get it right.” He does the same things over and over, hoping that somehow he can produce different results. (Sound familiar?) When despite his efforts, he remains stuck in the same endlessly repeating day, he becomes depressed and attempts suicide. But there is no escape; he simply wakes up right back where he started.
Finally, Phil takes two important steps: he tells the truth about what’s happening to him, and he asks for help. And what is the advice he gets? Instead of struggling to get it right or fighting to escape his daily existence, he is told to experience life at its fullest. Phil starts to really connect with the people around him, to listen to what’s important to them, and to help with their problems instead of being focused on his own. He joins into the community and works to develop his talents and share them with others. He begins for the first time to live a balanced, compassionate life.
Real life answers aren’t always as simple as the Hollywood version, but as fables go, this one holds some valuable lessons. At the end of the film, Phil says, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.” Sounds like a life worth living, doesn’t it?
Copyright © 2004, C.J. Hayden. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared in my blog How to Become a Hero in April 2004, and has not been printed elsewhere. If you would like to print it in your publication, please contact me for details and permission.