I believe I have all the time in the world. I have all the time I need, to do anything I should do. Problem is: I don’t do them.
I learned all this from watching “Groundhog Day,” a seemingly light Harold Ramis/Bill Murray comedy from 1993. Of course I enjoy the fun: Murray’s arrogant, self-centered weatherman is annually exiled to Punxsutawney, Pa., and his exile becomes permanent as he relives the day over and over. But his Pennsylvania penance teaches Murray how to live, and Groundhog Day asks me a tough question, “What would I do with all the time in the world?”
Murray depressingly puts it thus: “What if every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” The deadly sins wear thin, and Phil grows glum. His forecast: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.”
He tries suicide knowing he’ll rise again: “I’ve been killed so many times I don’t even exist.” About God he muses, “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
Then he gets it. He learns the piano, helps stranded women, saves the mayor, is nice to co-workers — even wooing and winning his producer, Andie McDowell — has snowball fights. And he cares for an old homeless man, on that man’s last night on earth. In the end he knows what to do with all the time in the world.
Watching this movie over and over I began to object. No fair! That guy got to live the same day over and over. He didn’t get sick or have to go to work. He didn’t have to live at all!
Then I get it. He did. He just lived it really fast. Murray’s character saw an LP life play at 78. He also had to start somewhere. It was a test and a gift, a challenge and a chance. It may take me a thousand days to learn the piano or woo a wife but a thousand days is not even three years. I think I have that.
I start with the first apparently pointless plinks on the piano — and I remember not to be tentative: Murray plays badly (at first), but with gusto from the get-go. I know I’ve many mistakes to make. When Mother Theresa began bathing beggars, she probably did it badly, too.
I find this idea everywhere. A mother introduced her six-year-old to playwright Harold Pinter saying, “He’s a good writer.”
The child replied, “Can he do a W?”
The play’s the thing, but first I have to do a W.
Paul Hughes is a writer in Orange, California. This essay is part of an in-progress collection called Letters from Paul: Children, Church, and Choices in Writing and Life.
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