Monday, March 14, 2011

Does your life ever feel like "Groundhog Day?" by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

Have you seen the popular movie, Groundhog Day? Have you ever thought what it would be like if you were Phil? Stuck and re-living the same day for who knows how many days or months? Do you wonder what you would do if you were stuck and suffering through the same day over and over again?

I have a friend who has a son with classic autism and other medical complications. Some days his son will have horrible tantrums and bang his head on the wall. The walls in his house have been patched, but the memories and the worries live on. He says that his life feels like "Groundhog Day."

In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil, who is an arrogant and sarcastic weather forecaster. Phil spends the night in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in order to broadcast the annual ritual of the coming out of the groundhog. When he wakes up the next morning at 6 AM again, he is annoyed to discover that he is trapped for a second night because of a snowstorm. It turns out to be the morning of the day before, and everything that happened the day before happens all over again.

This goes on day after day no matter what Phil does. If he does nothing different events repeat as on the first day. But if he changes his behavior, people respond differently and then all kinds of possibilities open up. Either way each day he remembers what happened in the previous editions of the same day.

As the days pass, out of desperation, when he cannot seduce her, Phil opens up to his producer, Rita. Through the intimacy, something changes. Phil begins to live more fully each day in a way that he has never done. When he comes across a street person, he takes him out to eat. His compassion for the old man makes him want to help people. Having suffered, he finally becomes able to empathize with other people's suffering. He becomes a local hero.

What is so powerful about Groundhog Day is the window it gives us into the experience of what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. When we get beyond the denial and resentment over the conditions of our lives, and accept our situation, then life becomes authentic and full of meaning and compassion.

The pain of my son’s autism over 30 years ago kicked open that door for me. My awareness has grown ever since. When we can’t change or fix something, it's common to believe that tomorrow will be exactly like today. If I just try hard enough, I’ll get through it. Thinking like this binds us to the stories of our past, clouds the present, and limits our vision of the possible. We cannot control what autism or another serious issue can do to our lives. We cannot determine what emotions will arise within us. We are often rendered powerless.

What we can do is to relate to our lives differently. This means accepting that change is inevitable and to believe that it's possible. Our feelings come and go: happiness, sorrow, laughter, worry… We may be fearful or worried in the morning, and that feeling may go by the afternoon. Hopelessness may be replaced by a glimmer of optimism. Even the most challenging situation is always unfolding and shifting.

Even in our pain and suffering, we can find a way to go on and keep trying to look for the possible. This is not a Pollyanna where everything will be just fine. Nor is it about replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts. But going on with courage, then as long as we are alive, the possibility of change is alive. We cannot control the thoughts and emotions within us nor the universal truth that everything evolves and changes. We can, however, just be aware and alert.

My friend’s son can be having a good day, sweet and innocent as only a child with autism can be. And then out of nowhere, this boy erupts in pain into a horrible tantrum, banging his head. This boy’s mother and father suffer deeply, but they don’t give up. They love him, and each other, and they keep living as best they can, helping others, and trying to help their boy.

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