Summary: Of the four roads supposed to lead to happiness, two are dead-ends--the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of honor and power--but the paths of service and union with God actually get us there.

Seventh Sunday in Course 2014

Our family has for several years tried each February 2, or thereabouts, to watch the Bill Murray film, “Groundhog Day.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the movie follows Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weather forecaster for a 2nd rank TV station as he, for the fourth time, covers the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA. A thoroughgoing, self-centered jerk, Phil finds himself repeating, over and over, the same day of his life, Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. The flik is a morality tale for our age, a tale of the search for happiness.

As Fr. Robert Spitzer sees it, the pursuit of happiness runs down several roads, but two of them are dead-ends. Pursuing pleasure, Phil Connors’ first attempt, sees good feeling as the highest end of life. Faced with a life without consequences, Phil stuffs his mouth with fattening food, smokes all he wants, drinks more than anyone should, and tries for multiple one-night stands. But pleasure, he learns, is not the same as happiness. It goes stale and dry in the throat faster than week-old tortillas. And for those who pursue good feelings exclusively over a long time, they learn that physical, moral and spiritual illnesses tend to cut short their hedonistic lives.

Many believe that power over others, or being some kind of celebrity with thousands of groupies is the key to happiness. It gives good feelings, they believe, and also leads to an easier access to all kinds of exotic pleasures. But adulation, too, eventually turns sour in the stomach, and fame and power can fall away in an instant. Johnny Carson left the Tonite Show at the top of his game, but a year later, few ever thought of him. Jay Leno will learn the same lesson, as will everyone who yearns for and attains power, wealth and great popularity.

No, neither the pursuit of pleasure nor the desire for power and renown can bring lasting happiness, because, in the end, the appetites fade, power must be relinquished, and the applause is silenced. All these are external enjoyments, so none can endure forever. We can look to Jesus for the answer, as we always do, but first let’s consider Phil Connors.

Phil soon realizes that in the unchanging world of February 2, the only person he could change is himself. He finds himself attracted to a coworker, a lovely producer named Rita, and uses his predicament to find out her background and taste so that he might be attractive to her. It’s all a big, long “setup” that backfires. Phil is looking for pleasure, power, and adulation, not a committed relationship, and he gets a long series of slaps in the face as his much-deserved reward. In despair over his failure, he admits that he doesn’t even like himself, and tries repeatedly to do himself in. But even that wrongheaded move is a failure.

But the desire for true happiness, the knowledge that there is a transcendent good calling us, is impossible to eliminate. Phil starts over. Rita seems happy to him, and so he confides his predicament and enlists her as an ally. Rita’s appeal is more than skin-deep. She is authentically concerned about others. She does more than required in her service-occupation. (Incidentally, we learn that much of her attractiveness comes from twelve years of Catholic schooling.) Phil realizes that the goodness he sees in Rita is something he wants for himself. So he sets his eyes on a new goal–true self-improvement. He uses each February 2 to devour books from the local library. He takes piano lessons from an increasingly bewildered local teacher. He gets involved in the community by noticing problems both big and little, and doing things to help others avoid disaster. He catches a child falling from a tree, replaces a flat tire, saves a man with the Heimlich manoeuver. He even learns there are some evils that he cannot correct, and begins to understand that pursuing pleasure and honor and power are true cul-de-sacs on the journey to joy.

What Phil Connors learns in fiction, each of us must learn in reality. Our Lord Jesus Christ showed us the true way to happiness. St. Paul had it right: the wisdom of the world is folly in the divine vision. There are only two routes to joy, and both of them involve self-control, sacrifice and much suffering, and they run parallel to each other, so that our footsteps must fall on both paths. The first is generous service to others, giving of our time, and ability, and wealth and income to improve their lives, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, teaching the faith, praying for the living and the dead. We call those the works of mercy, but they are really the works of Christ.

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W Pat Cunningham

commented on Feb 16, 2023

I wrote this back in 2014 and reviewed it here nine years later. I would improve it by altering the reference to Jay Leno and adding a paragraph after the consideration of service to others as a route to happiness. That paragraph admits that even service to others can be a route to pride, and that many of the "stars" of the culture seem to perform public service in order to puff up their resumes, rather than to give without expecting any return.

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