I was thinking about Groundhog Day recently and I realized really belatedly that it was really about change. What’s interesting, of course, about it, is not necessarily the specific content of the change—yay, misanthrope becomes caring (and don’t get me started on the whole small-town glorification part)—but the mechanism of the change.
Bill Murray’s character has to be hit over the head over and over again until he realizes this: your life sucks. Once realizing this, he is trapped by indecision on how, exactly, to make it unsuck—he tries tons of different methods that are wholly ridiculous, including thrill seeking, sucking up creepily to Andie McDowell’s character, etc., etc. And then, finally, he comes to a realization on how to live his life perfectly. But the point here is the basic resistance to change and, once accepted, the ineffectiveness of our efforts.
Past drafts of the story, as they often do, really accentuated the point to the point of obviousness: Murray’s character spends thousands of years stuck in the loop, he spends long periods of time attempting to commit suicide, and other bleak actions of that sort.
You can get stuck personally in these sorts of loops, and we’re stuck societally in this loop right now. Personally the weakness I find myself living in is the ineffectiveness in changing my life. I know I must change; I know the weaknesses I have to address; but methodologically, I’m stuck. How and more importantly how much are mysteries, so I flail. People mistakenly attribute society for these problems, i.e. society promotes messages and values for us that we seek to emulate (this is why rappers are supposed to be bad for us). But this isn’t true, at least not in the way we want it to be. We ourselves collude with society to make it work—I do. I have an imagined place for myself that is based on the way society works: it’s a meeting between my values and society’s to create a fictionalized role for myself that I can strive towards. The amount of dreaming involved in the fiction typically indicates the amount of insanity you have (we’re all a little insane), although it may mean that you’re a visionary. Again, though, we’re apt to flail at reconciling our dreams—which omit crucial details, like plot—with a potential reality. That’s why Groundhog Day is so popular and resonant to this day. (It helps that the premise itself is not merely high concept, but is metaphorical: the best high concept premises are a metaphor for something larger than themselves.)
Where it really hurts is at the societal level. You can have a certain amount of spiritual bankruptcy and still have a solvent society. Our spiritual problems are usually caused by uncertainty in the face of a grand universe that doesn’t have specific plans have particular you; but we all push past that. Nevertheless, at a certain level spiritual bankruptcy risks society’s prosperity. I don’t want to make any grand pronouncements here, but listen: people are flailing and society is too. We don’t know what we want.
We want to believe things are easy; this is well-documented. Take this time—while reading this sentence, perhaps—to chastise yourself for your latest example of magical thinking. (Food is the usual source for me.) Governmentally, we suffer from a similar problem. We’d like to spend a lot of money, then hide it from ourselves. Michael Lind pointed out recently the overreliance on tax credits; that’s simple: it’s a conscious way of hiding a purchase from ourselves, the fiscal equivalent of a credit card purchase. But that’s an easy, simple example.
Look at the polling; it will inevitably reveal a confused nation. Majorities support public options, but oppose health care; majorities want decreased spending, but have no idea what they’d like to cut; and so on. Legislators, too, are similarly confused. Olympia Snowe has become the prime example. I listened to one of her interviews today, and it was infuriatingly confusing: she wants triggers, because she doesn’t want government takeovers (but if it triggers, wouldn’t that imply a governmental takeover?) She touts triggers’ ability to save money, citing its CBO scoring (but doesn’t a public option have a better scoring?). She wants a fiscally responsible bill, but when quizzed directly about the specific taxes in the plan, opposes those too. She reportedly was pushing for more generous subsidies in the Gang of Six negotiations. Olympia Snowe is, we can conclude, confused. I don’t want to single her out; all of them are like this on one subject or another. There is a deep confusion in Washington that mirrors the deep confusion in America broadly.
We want change, but we have no idea how we’re going to get it. Unlike Groundhog Day, though, time will run out.