The Rite of Spring

Here’s how The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual:

noun. A formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way. An act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.

Every year, on February 2nd, thousands of people gather in the early morning hours at Gobbler’s Knob, a few miles outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to witness a weather prediction. Men in formal wear pull a groundhog from a stump. This groundhog’s name is Phil. (Why not?) Tradition holds that if Phil sees his shadow, we’ll have an early spring. If not, we’re stuck with six more weeks of winter. One of the men reads Phil’s prediction in highly-prescribed language. The gathered crowd then rejoices or boos, depending on the outcome. This has happened every year since the 1880s.

Most rituals are serious events—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like—but some are just for fun. Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, for example, or gathering on a freezing cold morning to watch a large rodent predict the weather.

When we hear the word ritual, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind. There’s a formal, prescribed series of events or actions, special clothes, special language, etc. A ritual, in this sense, is not a part of our ordinary daily lives. It’s something special, different, set apart.

The Groundhog Day ritual is what brings Phil Connors to Punxsutawney in the movie Groundhog Day. As a TV weatherman, it’s his job to “present” this ritual to the viewing audience. Because Phil is forced to relive the same day over and over, he’s forced to re-present the Groundhog Day ritual over and over again, too. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Phil feels that this ritual is beneath him.

If this is the first you’ve heard of Groundhog Day, I should point out that no one actually believes that the groundhog can predict the weather. We just act as if he can because it’s fun. The ritual involves some make-believe. Phil Connors comes off as a jerk in the clip above not because he doubts the accuracy of the weather-predicting groundhog. Rather, he’s a jerk because he’s not playing along. The point of this ritual is to be silly and have some fun and Phil is not taking the ritual seriously.

Confucius had a lot to say about these kinds of formal rituals, but he also used the word 禮 (li) in a broader sense. For him, 禮 (li) wasn’t like a set of “Sunday clothes” that we bring out just for weddings and funerals. He recommended bringing the same sense of attention, reverence, and good conduct that we associate with formal rituals to our everyday lives as well.

Oddly enough, by the end of the movie, Phil Connors’ life has become something of a ritual. He has adopted an optimal pattern of behavior for living virtuously in his one allotted day.

Confucius said, “Restrain the self and return to ritual (禮, li). That’s virtue (仁, ren). If for a full day you can restrain yourself and return to ritual (禮, li), everyone under Heaven will move toward virtue (仁, ren)…” (Analects, 12.1)

For his single day, Phil Connors is acting according to 禮 (li). In his last Groundhog Day, Phil not only acts virtuously, he does so with a sense of effortless grace and elegance. He is frictionless, floating smoothly from one virtuous interaction to the next. It is the best illustration of the Confucian conception of the intimate relationship between 禮 (li) and virtue 仁 (ren) I have ever seen. And like that conception, it’s much easier to experience than to put into words.

But, back to the quote, does the “whole world return to virtue” in Groundhog Day? Phil’s “whole world” in the movie is Punxsutawney. (Literally. He cannot leave the town.) Although he doesn’t bring about utopia in Punxy, he does have a profound effect on everyone he interacts with. He comes to the rescue of a carload of stranded elderly ladies, a boy who falls from a tree, and a man chocking on his dinner. He saves the marriage of a young couple. He brings joy and happiness to virtually everyone in the town through his art, his music, and his humor. And, in a scene that destroys me every time I see it, he gives comfort to an elderly homeless man whose death he cannot prevent.

Hold on…get your tissues. I’ll wait here…No, I’m fine. Just got something in my eye. 

By the end of the movie, Phil also exhibits what Confucius called 德 (de), a kind of moral charisma or moral power. In addition to helping others, he exhibits a positive sway over them. Again, it’s easier to experience than to put into words, but just look at how other people “brighten” in Phil’s presence in his final Groundhog Day.

And let’s not forget the more ordinary sense of ritual, either. On Phil’s last Groundhog Day, he has mastered his role in the ritual, retaining the fun while, at the same time, transforming it into a moment of deep and sincere gratitude.

Link: All of Confucius’ Analects on ritual (禮, li).