Living in Tolkien’s Groundhog Day

In his book Keep Going, Austin Kleon argues that just like the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, in which weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) must live February 2nd over and over, the artistic life is not linear but more of a cycle: no matter how much of a success or failure you are, you must keep coming back to the drawing board. Rather than wondering if you’ve ever “arrived,” focus instead on following a daily routine, knowing that “The real creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.”

He is absolutely right about this, and I would say his message is even more relevant during the pandemic. When there are fewer ways to safely spend your time, life feels a lot more monotonous and constrained. How do you muster up the motivation to keep going when you’re tired and jaded and would rather hide in a cocoon of blankets?

Interestingly, last week I came upon on a line in The Fellowship of the Ring which expanded my thinking on this idea. The line comes up as Frodo and his friends are traveling through the Old Forest, an ancient and mystical place where it is hard to tell how close you have come to the end.

It became difficult to follow the path, and they were very tired. Their legs seemed leaden. […] They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening. ~The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 6

Now, a journey through the Old Forest looks totally different from my day-to-day existence. Yet there are phrases here that I believe are more apt descriptions of what life was like in 2020, and continues to be like in 2021—descriptions that resonate more deeply with me than the Groundhod Day metaphor. For me there are two broad reasons for this.

First, on a social and political level: The Trump presidency felt very strange and abnormal to me, and at many points highly worrying. I don’t think I shared in the hysteria of Trump’s most passionate haters, but certainly there were times it felt that way. To mention just two among many events that shook me: (1) Last summer there were marches and riots across the country over racial injustice, and at one point the president apparently used force to disperse a peaceful crowd, stand in front of a church, and take a photo of himself holding up a bible he doesn’t believe in. (2) In January there was a break-in at our nation’s Capitol over the results of the election—a break-in which it is wholly reasonable to link with the president’s own urging.

But it’s not just political events that are disturbing. Amazon decided recently to pull a book from its digital inventory that critiques certain views on transgenderism (a book which had already been available for sale through the company for three years). A shortlist of Dr. Seuss books has been deemed too harmful to be published anymore. (I know these are complex and nuanced matters, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t disturbing.) And through it all, the pandemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives and altered our social dynamics in profound ways. The situation seems to be improving as more vaccines are administered, but it is still eerie to walk or drive down empty streets, constantly check yourself for a mask, and assess whether or not you’re observing proper social distancing principles. It is still strange to watch movies featuring people walking about carelessly in giant crowds, and to instinctively wonder why they are being so stupid and irresponsible. It is still weird to feel even a hint of hesitation when proposing a visit with loved ones you haven’t seen in a while—not because you doubt their affection but because you doubt whether you’re being considerate enough of their safety.

Second, on a personal level: I have not been to church or community group in almost a year (we are still meeting virtually), and I dearly miss my friends there. Family gatherings for birthdays and holidays have been smaller. I am a single father of two young children—a relatively recent and completely unwanted development—and my options for what I can do with them are limited. And as every parent knows, you are always on. Even after all the energy you spend feeding your kids, and driving them to daycare, and playing with them, and changing their diapers, and telling them to clean up their toys, and adjudicating their conflicts, and finally getting them settled in bed after reading stories, your spare time is mainly spent on the other chores you didn’t get to: washing the dishes, folding laundry, answering email, setting out tomorrow’s items, coordinating your meals and schedule for the next 3-14 days, etc. For outnumbered parents, the smallest offer of help, such as a friend fetching a snack for one child while you’re busy handling the other, is like being given a chance to skip your next mortgage payment.

So there’s a sense in which I envy Bill Murray’s freedom in Groundhog Day. At least he can go anywhere he likes without wearing a mask or dealing with kids who talk back to him. Like the hobbits in the Old Forest, there are many times I don’t feel that I’m running or walking through the day, but literally stumbling through the sheer drudgery and oddness of it all.

But, as Dickens might say, the worst of times coexist with the best of times. When all is said and done, I have it much better than most people in America. Better than most people in the world. My kids are healthy, happy, and impossibly cute; they regularly teach me about what matters in life, in ways that being childless never could. I have a stable job, a beautiful house, and a sizeable COVID bubble. I’m in good health. I’ve been able to embark on some amazing outdoor adventures with friends. I have experienced overwhelming love from my church and local support network. Even if all of the safety nets and conveniences of my life were stripped away, I am nevertheless part of a story of hope—a story with songs and prayers and vibrant traditions and ancient truths that speak of redemption and victory over death.

In other words, there is such a thing as roots: the ability to rest secure in realities that misfortune cannot take away. And there is in fact rich language for this notion later in The Fellowship of the Ring. When the hobbits reach Bree and meet Aragorn for the first time, they come into a possession of a letter from Gandalf containing a poem about their mysterious new acquaintance:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

~The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 10

With strong roots you can survive Tolkien’s Groundhog Days with something like courage, even joy.

Note: This does not mean you will. It is one thing to preach endurance, another to apply it in the storm of anxiety, uncertainty, heartache, fear, and exhaustion. Tim Keller, a pastor who has long preached on how to handle suffering, is now battling cancer and wonders whether he can take his own advice. He concludes that the way is hard and full of grief.

Yet there is a way. It is not an illusion. The ominous dream does have an end. And the beautiful thing is this: the end is only the beginning.