How Should We Wait?
Let Bill Murray Show the Way

Written By Torey Lightcap

We’re now headlong into Advent, and for those on either side of the Sunday pulpit, the subject of waiting must surely have come up at least once in the past few weeks. Those who preach are saying that virtuous hope arises from the act of waiting, and that, at least as far as Christmas is concerned, it isn’t whether we have to wait (we just do) but much more a matter of how.

Waiting is complicated business. It’s largely judged as irrelevant within the American culture with its norms for immediacy. All other actions and possibilities pale before the specter of instantaneous fulfillment. Meanwhile, waiting is a silly trifle that takes up precious time—time in which expectations must be allowed to arise and flit away unrealized — time which could otherwise be spent doing something, anything else.

Even so, the men and women in the pulpit seem to be telling us that waiting is somehow good for us. And we know this is so; we know it must be true, even if the massive weight at the other end of the cultural scale is well beyond the tipping point.

So. How should we wait?

For quick inspiration we could look to the movies, and to an iconic portrayal of a character made to cool his heels, who discovers something wonderful in the process.

Phil Connors is the slouchy, grouchy weatherman played by Bill Murray in the 1993 classic Groundhog Day. For those who’ve seen the film, the plot will be easily remembered, but even for those not so initiated, the details will only require the slightest of dustings. Because in a nutshell, Phil is trapped, living the same day—a grey, slushy February 2nd—over and over and over. You might say the pressure of such a realization affects his work.

When he realizes that he’s been fated to this day—this yucky, miserable February day of all days (why not at the timeshare in Cabo?)— Murray brings Phil through all the natural stages of coping, beginning with denial and ending in acceptance. Between those actorly articulations, Murray chews the same scenery a little differently each time, a little differently with each passing, carbon-copy day.

Stuck in this vortex as he is, Phil voluntarily becomes a selfish little child, a reckless lover, a thief, a passing fancy of his own grandeur (“I’m a God”), a remorseless consumer of sugar and sex. Then he morphs out of the initial jolts of freedom and irresponsibility and into a soul-jangling depression. He engages the endless repetitions of television, or attempts to kill himself – which never successfully lasts for more than a few hours, as he sits up in bed and day begins anew, a mocking thing, as though yet unlived.

All of which can only go on for so long, until Phil is finally confronted by his own grotesque impatience. He’s a wreck, and he knows it. So he asks himself the same question that Advent poses to us: if he must wait, then how?

Once the question has been posed, the answers come naturally enough. He should be willing to improve himself, willing to take up French and piano and ice-sculpting. He should be willing to submit himself to the needs of charity. He should be willing to let the one thing he loves most in all the world—a simple and lovely woman—slip away. He should be willing, in fact, to let all his old attachments go and to embrace people and things with an eye for their natural beauty.

Everything in Phil’s world is invested with a certain impermanence made all the more so by the seeming permanence of his stuck life on the time warp.

It’s his deep and spiritual acknowledgement of his rarefied situation that ultimately allows him past it. He gets the Hollywood ending we might expect, yet when it comes, it is so emotionally satisfying, so well-earned, that we cheer for the man. He’s learned to wait, and if he can do it, anyone can.

We may wish to recall the words of Paul to the Romans, that suffering breeds endurance, which makes character, which produces hope—a hope that never disappoints.

Copyright © 2008 Torey Lightcap