How contemplating your own death can help break your winter rut
Turns out Bill Murray in 'Groundhog Day' has the same existential message for us as Heidegger
We all wish we had more time: more time in each day, and more years in our life. There is so much to do, and it feels like there's no way to cram it onto our creaking carousels of work, bill-paying and social obligation. This feeling is especially strong in the long dark winter months. One solution that humans have always dreamed about, and which people are pouring oceans of money into researching, is to conquer death. By removing the finish line, we could liberate ourselves to fulfill all of our goals. Endless list, no bucket.
To some, the cup of immortality is a poisoned chalice, more likely to serve up existential despair than eternal fulfillment. Martin Heidegger, one of the most notable philosophers of the 20th century, believed that we are situated by our past experience, and oriented to our future, in particular, its end-point. Our relationship to our past and future gives our lives meaning, and infinite time could destroy that relationship.
Harold Ramis's classic rom-com Groundhog Day makes just this point. In the film, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, weather reporter and existential hero. While reporting the Groundhog Day festivities from Punxsatawney, Phil gets trapped in a mysterious time loop. Each morning he wakes up, he is doomed to relive the same day until he finally is released from this loop by winning the love of Rita Hanson, played by Andy McDowell.
According to Heidegger, we dread death and avoid thinking about it. We push our dark thoughts away, and busy ourselves with the activities of day-to-day life: work, socializing, competition with our neighbours... Heidegger thought this was a recipe for an inauthentic existence. We put off our deepest goals and try to forget that in doing so, the clock is still ticking.
For Phil Connors, the clock has apparently stopped. He spends the first loops trying to enjoy himself. He drinks heavily, has one-night-stands, and drives recklessly. Yet soon, he becomes depressed, realizing his actions have no meaning. This leads him to a series of suicide attempts. Each time he kills himself, he wakes up again in the same place.
Connors only begins to come out of this depression when he focuses on one important goal: winning Rita's love. This gives his very repetitive life meaning, and he uses each day to learn more about her and get closer to winning her over. Even within the loop, he begins to make progress. When he finally succeeds, he wakes up, with Rita, on February 3rd: the day after Groundhog Day. The happy ending releases Connors back into the normal flow of time.
Heidegger believed that "being-towards-death" was the key to leading an authentic and fulfilling life. He didn't mean that we should just morbidly contemplate our more-or-less imminent demise. He meant that we must remain aware that our lives are finite, and that each choice we make forecloses other possibilities. Only when Connors makes the choice to pursue Rita does his life emerge from depressing repetition.
Our own finitude is not always a pleasant thought. Contemplating it can cause anxiety and dread. But it is also what gives meaning to any of our choices. Closing possibilities and passing opportunities by is a necessary condition of seizing any of them. Would Einstein have changed physics if he was also committed to winning an Olympic marathon? Can one have a truly great love, but also a thousand lovers? Would winning Rita's love mean anything if he could not share a life with her, but only one day, repeated eternally?
In winning Rita's heart, Connors also wins back his own finitude, and with it the chance for a meaningful existence. Continuing his march to the grave is the condition of his liberation. So if you feel like you're spinning your wheels think about how many years you might have left. Sometimes, facing the end is the only way to start again.