Trapped in a Free World – The Gospel According to Groundhog Day

Freedom has been one of the grand obsessions of the Western world for 400 years. The roots of this passion go back further, of course, at least to the Greeks. But the love affair has heated up significantly since then, fuelled in turn by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic movement.

The 20th century stoked the fires still more, with the rise of communism and fascism, and the feeling that the West was the last fortress against a rising tide of oppression & subjugation. Hence the West went so far as to call itself \”The Free World.\”

Yet for many, the love affair has gone sour: in Russia now, there is a freedom of speech that was never possible under the former Soviet Union, yet the country is threatened with anarchy. In the West, we have the freedom to choose between 25 kinds of toothpaste but often we can\’t choose to get a job. There is freedom of education but increasingly it is so expensive that that freedom is a luxury many can\’t afford. We have the freedom to vote but it doesn\’t seem to change anything (as one wit said, \”If voting changed anything, it wouldn\’t be allowed anyway\”).

Somewhere in the relationship, something started to go wrong. We need to go back, and retrace our steps.

To help us, I want us to consider the movie Groundhog Day, which illustrates three different definitions of freedom. The main character, played by Bill Murray, is Phil Connors, a TV weather man who is sent to report on the Groundhog Day ceremony at Punxsutawny PA.

Everything goes according to schedule, except that, when it\’s time to leave the town, Phil and the TV crew can\’t leave because of a blizzard, and are forced to stay an extra night. Then, when Phil wakes up the next day, he finds that it is still Groundhog Day: the same old Sonny and Cher song is on the radio, he has the same job to do, the same colleagues, exactly the same conditions. And the same is true the next day…and the next day and the next.

At first, Phil feels trapped. Then, as he discusses it with two new-found friends in a local bar, he realises that actually there could be some advantages to having the same day over and over and over. That gives us the movie\’s first definition of freedom:
1. Freedom is doing whatever you want  

Phil realises that, if there\’s no tomorrow, \”We could do whatever we wanted… All your life, it\’s clean up your room, pick up your feet, be nice to your little sister, take it like a man.\” Then he concludes, \”I\’m not going to live by their rules any more.\” Rules, after all, are the opposite of freedom: they imply responsibility, accountability, relationships… society. Now, he doesn\’t have to worry about anything: there need be no responsibility because there can be no consequences.

It sounds nice…maybe. He drives on the railway line, pursued by police. He may be put in a prison cell, but the following morning, he will still wake up in his own bed…again. He seduces Nancy, promising her marriage. After all, he knows he will never have to follow through on his promise. He robs a security truck and buys himself a Mercedes. His TV producer, Rita, unimpressed by his egotism, quotes Sir Walter Scott to him: \”The wretch, concentred all in self.\” That describes precisely what Phil becomes.

In real life, of course, nobody lives consistently like this. If I want freedom for myself, I have to allow others freedom too, and compromise becomes necessary. My freedom to party impinges on my neighbour\’s freedom to study all night. Someone has to back down. Not all freedoms are compatible. Or again: most of are willing to give up what we consider lesser freedoms in order to enjoy greater freedoms. Most of us (unlike Phil) do not exercise our freedom to drive on the railroad tracks because we value the greater freedom of staying alive.

It\’s also interesting that most of the things we feel best about in life are actually those where we did not do exactly what we wanted, where we disciplined ourselves and made some hard choices: the exams we passed, the risks that paid off, the training that produced results. If we had always done exactly what we wanted, none of those things would have happened.

Even in Phil\’s world, it does not work. For a start, he cannot seduce any woman he wants. He tries to seduce Rita, building up information about her little by little so he can fake the same interests as her. But she knows he is manipulating her, though (of course) not how. Finally, her resistance makes him rethink this whole way of living.

The movie then offers us a second definition of freedom:
2. Freedom is becoming the best you can be  

Phil gradually realises that his day offers opportunities to help others. Little by little he begins to take those opportunities, until finally he lives a day where he goes from one good to deed to another: catching a child falling out of a tree, changing a flat tire, saving a man from choking. Obviously, Hollywood sentimentalisation plays a big part here. Yet the principle underlying what happens is significant.

Phil has finally figured out what he is \”supposed\” to do. The jobs he does are in a sense waiting for him…though he did not even notice them at first. He chooses to do them, though in another sense he hardly has a choice.

There is a strange paradox here. The first freedom, though it seemed to promise him breadth, actually narrowed him and made him less human. This second kind of freedom looks narrower and more restrictive, yet turns out to be the entrance to a wider place where he becomes more human, more himself.

An elderly couple who sheltered Jews during the Second World War were interviewed not long ago, and asked the inevitable question: Why did you do it? Their reply was simple: We had no choice. Was that bad, a limiting of their freedom? Of course not. For them, helping the anti-Nazi effort was being the best they could be and that is a wonderful kind of freedom. Certainly, there was a sense of inevitability, of destiny, about what they did ñ but that is not incompatible with this kind of freedom.

In general, I suspect this is what we mean when we talk about freedom: freedom of opportunity, freedom of education, freedom to travel, to get a job. In all these things, the underlying hope is that they will enable you to become the best you are capable of becoming.

Notice a couple of important features of this freedom:

It is connected to love. Phil learns to be a more loving kind of person. Instead of thinking about himself all the time (the first kind of freedom), he thinks more of the needs of others. Psychologist Scott Peck has written, \”Love is the will to extend one\’s self for the purpose of nurturing one\’s own or another\’s… growth.\” (1)

It is connected to truth: the truth is that people cannot be indefinitely manipulated for our selfish ends; the truth is that a self-centred kind of freedom does not bring the happiness it initially promises. Phil has to bend his mind around that hard reality. He cannot bend reality to his mind.

It is connected to rules. Phil used to say, \”I\’m not going to live by their rules any more.\” But human beings only function well with rules. Take the rules of language. At first, the rules seem boring and you are self-conscious about using them. Eventually, however, they become natural to you, and you forget them in the freedom of being able to express yourself and to relate to others. (2) So in a sense what Phil finally learns is the rules of truth and love which we need to guide us in the expression of freedom.

It does not automatically bring happiness. Phil has to work to be free in this sense. Suppose you feel what you are made for is athletics. You want the freedom to excel at athletics. You follow the rules of training and competing. Are you happy? Ninety percent of your involvement in athletics will be sweat, exertion, pain, effort, failure, giving up, trying again… When it comes down to it, probably only ten percent of what you do could be described as \”happiness\” ñ though probably that is too weak a word for what a successful athlete feels.

That same principle applies not only to sport but to life in general. If it is true that to be the best we can be involves love, love too requires courage, work, risk, pain, failure, sacrifice and concentration. But it is worth it.

However, there are still problems with this definition even though it is an improvement on the first one. For instance, we may not be the best judges of the best we can be. Others may know us better than we know ourselves. Even more complicated, what we are best at may not always be attainable: we may fail a course, not get the perfect job; perhaps someone dies, or you cannot get money for grad school, or you find you have to care for an ageing parent.

What becomes of freedom then? What becomes of \”becoming all I am capable of becoming\”? Fortunately, there is a deeper meaning, a third definition of freedom. After all, Phil is still not out of the Groundhog Day trap. The third, ultimate freedom is:
3. Freedom is belonging to someone who loves you  

At the end of the movie there is a bachelor auction. Two women bid for Phil\’s services. Rita is horrified at their low bids, empties her purse and bids everything she has: the princely sum of $339.88. It is this which sets Phil free, in the obvious sense that when he wakes up next morning it is (finally) the day after Groundhog Day.

There is a paradox here: when Phil was trapped in time he experienced a certain kind of freedom, not least in relationships. Now that he is in a sense trapped ñ in a relationship ñ a new kind of freedom is possible.

Of course to belong to someone can be very negative: it can mean slavery, the very opposite of freedom ñ but not necessarily. Many people have known the freedom that comes from committed, loving relationships ñ with a parent, a grand-parent, a teacher, a friend. Because of that relationship, where we are accepted and nurtured, we have experienced the freedom to be ourselves, to live with assurance, to take risks, to fail, and even (for some of us even harder) to succeed.

If this is true of a human being ñ that they can give that kind of freedom ñ in Christian understanding, it is even more true of God.

That nurturing parent, that accepting friend, is, according to Jesus, a picture of what God is like.

Why is the freedom of being in a relationship with God so special? Jesus said, \”You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.\” (3) He taught two freeing truths about God in particular:

God is Creator: God made us and therefore knows us best. God more than anyone knows who we are capable of becoming.

We may not get the job we want or the salary we \”deserve\”, but God is more concerned for the development of our character, our personhood, and specially to make us like Jesus ñ Jesus the normal, normative human being ñ a person as persons were always meant to be, fully alive. God can do that for us in any and all circumstances.

To become like Jesus is to become fully human, to become fully alive, to be as we were meant to be ñ to be free.

God is also rescuer

In Christian understanding, many human problems come because we have alienated ourselves from God, looked for freedom and fulfilment in self-directed ways ñ the first definition.

But the God Jesus taught about is a God who came after us and bought us back, provided a means of reconciliation. Rita (Andy McDowell) emptied her wallet to buy the one she loved. Christian understanding is that in Jesus God emptied out his life to buy back…us.

On this view, true freedom is to belong to the God who made you, who loves you, and who gave everything to win your friendship. But God gives us a further, ultimate freedom: the freedom to accept this possibility of relating to the Creator or of rejecting it. And that freedom is the scariest of all.

(1) Scott Peck. The Road Less Travelled. New York: Simon and Schuster 1978. p.81

(2) I am grateful for the suggestion of this analogy to Bill Van Groningen, Christian Reformed chaplain at Queen\’s University, Ontario.

(3) The Gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 32.