Groundhog Day 2021: Empathy

There are few words which can describe how significant the last 12 months have been in all our lives. We (human society) have been deeply affected by a global pandemic which has changed the way we work, play, learn, interact, and, well, live. And while 2020 contained some wonderous events for me personally, such as my wonderfully personal and connective wedding, the events of the past year have also laid bare some of society's darkness as well. (For more on those sorts of topics though, I'd refer you to my Guy Fawkes Day articles.) Being Groundhog Day, I prefer to pause with internal reflection not outward commentary and evaluation.

When viewing the Groundhog Day film in my usual way today, I looked at it through the lens of this last year. When we watch films, we tend to focus on the experiences and perspective of a specific individual or group. Much of the film's background is therefore filled with people who are "extras" or side-characters. Similarly, we humans tend to view our lives in the same way. We see ourselves as protagonists in our own story and therefore see others as side-characters in it.

Groundhog Day, the film, centers the story around Phil Connors' experiences of repeating the day over and over again. Today, in my viewing, I found myself focusing not on Phil, but on the people around him. I imagined how his actions or words may impact them. Notice the impact of Phil's choice to bribe the piano teacher to oust a young piano student mid-lesson. Or imagine the impact of Phil's degrading comments toward Larry early on in the film. Now, imagine if these experiences are repeated for eternity for those individuals. Meaning, what if Phil's actions in these moments become the moments that these people have to relive with him everyday, the way he relives everyday in the film.

My point in bringing up these observations isn't to condemn Phil. In fact, later in the film, Phil is shown to be quite different as a person. We can envision how this new kind person might have patiently allowed the young piano student to finish her lesson. We also can see when Phil makes an effort to genuinely connect, or at least befriend, Larry by asking him about his life. My point is to prompt that previously mentioned thought exercise: imagine the story these "side-characters" experience through their interaction(s) with Phil. We, as the audience, see the transformation of Phil from "wretch" (to quote Rita's quote) to hero. Each character in that film would likely have a very different view of Phil. "Yesterday, he treated me like trash, but today he wants to be my friend? Will tomorrow be trash again?"

In our lives, we present ourselves to others and share with them a piece of our selves. We give them pieces of our story with which they try to build their own understanding. Now, that understanding is built through their own perspective, bias, and life-experience, but it forms a story in their minds about us. We do the same thing with them. We receive pieces of their story and form those pieces into a story that we tell ourselves about them.

I don't want to delve to deeply in this reflection, so I'll conclude here by saying the following:
Use care when building a story in your head about other people. They live rich full lives and have had wonderful and horrible experiences. Those people aren't simply side-characters in your story.

Lastly, be kind in the way you share your story with others. Your actions and your words will be the story they repeat to themselves about you.

No comments: