“How Does It End?”
A sermon on: Groundhog Day, The Truman Show and a Boat
Sunday, February 15, 2014
Rev. Tom Martinez
Never get out of the boat.
Absolutely…right. Never get out of the boat
unless you’re going all the way.
—Captain Willard, Apocalypse Now
Camus once wrote that, “myths exist for us to breathe our imaginations into.” That’s found in his essay on “The Myth of Sisyphus,” a powerful myth into which Camus breathed his imagination. Mention of Sisyphus today conjures the end of the great mythic figure, whose fate was to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down.
I don’t know about you but life sometimes feels like that. I get up in the morning and make my coffee, just as I’ve done a thousand other times. One day fades into the next as days turn into weeks, which blend into months and years. Before you know it decades are passing by and you begin to wonder where all the time went.
These thoughts are on my mind as it’s the time of year when we reflect on the movie, Groundhog Day, in which Phil (played by Bill Murray), is trapped in a time loop, fated to live the very same day over and over again. He can make whatever choices he wants, do anything he wants, but the next day he’ll wake up and it’s Groundhog Day all over gain. Bill Murray is of course both brilliant and hilarious so the movie’s a lot of fun. But the reason we keep returning to it has more to do with the power of the film’s message. It’s a sort of celluloid Song of Solomon, only Phil doesn’t conclude life is simply a chasing after the wind, but rather an invitation to love and blossom into the person he was always meant to be.
But there’s a whole bunch of Groundhog Days along the way, which brings us back to the repetitive nature of existence. It’s similar in some respects to “Constellations,” a play currently on Broadway which creatively takes up some fascinating new ideas emerging out of so-called “String Theory,” things like parallel universes and a multiplicity of realities. The English playwright Nick Payne heard a lecture by Brian Green and found the ideas so fascinating he went on to create a play in which the two main characters (played by Jake Gyllenhaal & Ruth Wilson) inhabit parallel lives, with recurring scenes altered ever-so slightly as their various doppelgangers head off in different metaphysical directions.
Though based on emerging ideas within Cosmology and Physics, these ideas aren’t entirely new. Ancient Egyptian, Asian and indigenous cultures have long-made use of cyclical models of time and history (with Judaism and Christianity being the exception). And a glance at the origins of Existentialism reveals that both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard wrestled with the idea of an eternally recurring universe. Nietzsche referred to it as the “eternal return” or the “eternal recurrence of the same,” suggesting that only a true superman could possibly withstand this “heaviest burden.” This is the Sisyphus myth writ large, only without any gods to look to for intervention or a sense of over-arching meaning. Kierkegaard took a different view, suggesting that, faced with such a fate, it is only through a profound, all-absorbing leap of faith that one can transcend such a meaningless existence.
These ponderous considerations inform the unfolding drama of Groundhog Day, in which the main character, Phil, is forced to live the same day over for what appears an eternity, a fate that forces him to question the meaning of existence. Along the way he experiments with various egocentric strategies of manipulation, both of his environment and the people in it. But over time he begins to undergo a transformation along the lines of what the depth psychologist C. G. Jung referred to as “individuation,” a process whereby the center of one’s psychic life gradually shifts from the ego to what Jung referred to as the Self (encompassing one’s entire psyche and a portion of the Transcendent). Far from having anything to do with mere “selfishness,” the term “Self” as Jung meant the totality of the person. The conscious integration of this larger sense of “Self” leads naturally to an awakening of compassion for all of life and an acceptance—a celebration even—of one’s interdependence with what Rilke referred to as “the wave moving through all things.”
It’s no wonder adherents from all the World Religions see their teachings at work in the film—Phil’s evolution from a self-centered egomaniac to a bodhisattva-like servant to the world is so powerful and beautiful. Not only does he align his life in perfect harmony with the needs of his community (being in the right place at the right time to catch a falling boy, fix a flat for a car of elderly ladies, perform the Heimlich maneuver for a man choking in a restaurant), but he simultaneously expands and enriches his life through reading and the arts.
The Jungian Psychoanalyst Don Ferrell says that the real meaning of Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return is best posed as a question, which is in fact what Nietzsche mostly did. He was basically asking us all, if you were to gradually become aware that you were fated to live this very life over and over again for all eternity, how would you then live? There’s a certain “putting things in perspective” that comes about through this line of thought that does indeed have the capacity to deepen one’s existence. Trivial concerns fall by the wayside as you find yourself descending toward the Ground of Being, which seems to be where Kierkegaard hung out.
In Kierkegaard’s reflections on the idea of the eternal return he mentions one particular type of inauthentic life, that of a Don Juan. His critique is that the Don Juan personality surrenders himself to the process of seduction so thoroughly he loses himself, which is what Phil seemed to learn on the way to an authentic relationship with his love interest in the film, Rita. Early on he fixates on her merely as an object to be seduced, morphing his tastes and traits to suit her ideal man. But in the process he discovers this is a fruitless path incompatible with the process of self-discovery taking place in his life.
Gradually, as he begins to relinquish control so as to orient his life around service and his own development, his capacity for true connection in an actual meeting of persons becomes possible. We could also view this in classical Jungian terms in which Rita would be a symbol for the feminine (Anima). In this sense their unification can be seen as an integration characteristic of the journey toward wholeness, a deep merging of the masculine and feminine. In the film they fall asleep in each other’s arms that one fateful night, awakening together to a new day. In fact it is only when he awakens in the presence of the feminine that his new life begins.
While pondering all this another film came to mind, and at first I wasn’t clear as to exactly why. But trusting these sorts of things I ran out and rented, The Truman Show. You may recall this is the film in which Jim Carey plays a man whose life has been turned into a television show from the moment of his birth, so that everyone in his world is literally an actor on a stage. The only person unaware of the artifice is Truman himself. All of this takes place on a Disney World type island where “The Truman Show” is filmed, a self-contained world in which everything appears real and totally normal but is anything but.
Gradually Truman begins to suspect something is wrong with the world and goes about attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery. It struck me while watching it again that there are some uncanny similarities with Groundhog Day. Like Phil in Punxsutawney, Truman encounters the same people each morning and goes through the motions in the same repetitive fashion over and over again. He sees the happy looking African American family across the street and yells out, “Good morning. And in case I don’t see you later, good afternoon, good evening and good night.” Truman is an upbeat guy to say the least, not a self-centered egomaniac like the early incarnation of Phil. So Truman isn’t in need of personal transformation, but rather spiritual liberation from the repressive and constraining nature of his social world.
As young boy he dreamed of travel and adventure, but the masters of his universe countered these aspirations by implanting fear. In one instance an attack dog is put in his path to block his exit from the island. But the more traumatizing warning came when a storm was artificially summoned while Truman and his father were out boating. His father pretends to drown, leaving Truman with a terrible fear of the water, dashing his dreams of escape. This brilliant bit of symbolism reflects the ways in which our fears of our own unconscious depths can force us to live our lives on the little bit of consciousness afforded us by society.
But Truman seems to have read his Kierkegaard, for in the film’s climax he takes a leap of faith like few others—only it’s the very leap that awaits all of us should we choose to take it. And this relates to today’s Biblical text in which Peter leaps out of the boat in his zeal to reach Jesus. There are many ways to interpret this story, beginning with the most basic in which it’s seen as an illustration of Peter’s adventurous spirit and his reverence for Jesus.
Without detracting from that reading, I’d like to suggest an additional way of thinking about it, in which the boat becomes the symbol of culture and its dominant way of conceptualizing reality (the agreed upon social construction of the world). To step out of the boat then means leaving behind society’s definitions concerning what’s real and who matters, to what is valued or has worth, to walk directly on the surface of the deep, in the midst of the storm. C. G. Jung has described religion as often practiced as a means of mediating what would otherwise be “direct contact with the unconscious.”
I’d like to suggest that this is one way we can conceive of following Jesus. By stepping out of the cultural vehicle, Peter is letting go of all false gods, he’s turning his back on the immortality ideologies offered by Rome and he is setting out upon the surface of the deep alone. Only he is not alone, of course. He is making his way toward an authentic connection with the Divine.
At the conclusion of The Truman Show, Truman has managed to overcome his fear of the water. We and the whole television viewing audience watch as he steers a sailboat toward the horizon. The masters of his universe, who have been exploiting his existence to sell household products, attempt to turn him back by calling up another storm (like the one that traumatized him as a child). Only Truman isn’t a child any longer. As the winds buffet the craft he yells at the heavens, “You’re gonna have to kill me!” The director instructs one of his technicians to send a wave to capsize the craft, but the man refuses (a reminder that traces of humanity can exist in even the most despicable places), so the director does it himself.
A huge wave topples the craft and we watch as Truman is submerged. Entangled in the ships ropes, powerless and alone, Truman becomes a Christ-like figure, one sacrificed to the gods of the world who rule through intimidation and violence. Satisfied that no one could continue on after such an experience, the director rights the craft and parts the storm clouds.
Only Truman doesn’t give up. He pulls the sail back up to catch the wind (of the spirit), and sails to the very edge of the world. Then something fantastic happens: the bow of the boat punctures the sky. Truman has reached the outer limit of his artificial universe and broken through to the real world. Then, much like Peter, he steps out of the boat. We watch breathlessly as he walks along the surface of the water to a mysterious set of stairs, which he climbs to a door marked “Exit.”
Now the whole world is watching, including his one true love who was banished from his world for having stirred something real. At this point the director begins to speak, sounding of course like the voice of God, only we know he’s not the real God, he’s more like the Wizard of Oz. It’s as if the way of the world could be personified so as to tempt us.
Truman asks the voice who he is, and he answers honestly that he’s the director of a TV show.
Truman then asks about himself, “Then who am I?”
The director replies, “You’re the star.”
Truman nods in comprehension. Everything he had begun to suspect was in fact true. Everything has been an illusion. “Was nothing real?” he asks.
“You were real,” the director tells him.
He takes that in. While everything else in the repetitive world of illusion had been little more than a mirage of artificiality, he had been and is, real. This discovery of his own authenticity, one could argue, is tremendously empowering, despite all the repressive pressures exacted upon him.
The director says what our world of fears always whisper, that this familiar world, despite all its flaws, is better than the Great Unknown. Truman has opened the door and stands at its threshold, deciding what to do.
After a silence the director demands, “Say something.”
Truman turns to face him, lowers his head and then says beaming, just as he had said every morning throughout his life, “Good morning! And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!” And with that he steps through the door into the real world.
It’s a curious thing, those final words. It might seem at first glance that he would say something new, proclaim his independence from the madness, shout at the powers that had imprisoned him. But by saying what he had always said, he is connecting with who he has always been, and who he will continue to be, a real person. Only now he has stepped out of the boat.
May it Be. Amen.