There is something unnerving about recognizing an aspect of yourself portrayed in a movie character. But it can be very enlightening too. I know because this happened to me recently while watching “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.
In the film, Murray plays Phil, a love lorn weatherman who is reliving the same day, February 2nd, over and over while in Punxsutawney reporting on their annual Groundhog Day festival. Rita, played by McDowell, is Phil’s t.v. producer, working with him on location, and the object of his affection. With the repetition of days, Phil experiences the passage of time and he falls desperately in love with Rita. She however, lives in the “real time” of a 24 hour February 2nd. Phil realizes that he has only that one day in which to win her affection.
With repeated chances to get it right, Phil becomes more adept at courting Rita and he has some success. Unfortunately, his success spurs his enthusiasm resulting in an over-eagerness that is a turn off to Rita. His actions create the exact opposite of his intentions. It is not until he stops trying so hard to win Rita, and focuses instead on becoming a better person, that he achieves the desired result. She falls for him.
Before the end of the movie, I had my “Aha” moment. I saw a reflection of my own behavior in Phil’s zealous determination. Since being single for more years than I’d care to admit, I have had ample time and an ample number of relationships to know exactly who I’m looking for and what I want. Recently I met That Someone. Like Phil, I rushed in full tilt never asking if my enthusiasm might be sabotaging my success.
If you are a resourceful person like me, it may seem counter-intuitive to not go after what you want with everything you’ve got. But in one of those ironic truisms of life, that is precisely what is called for.
In the 1992 preface to his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl, shares what is his repeated admonishment to his students:
“Don’t aim at success-the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
It has been my experience that the same principle applies to love, as so clearly demonstrated in the movie. The more you want it, the more you chase after it, the more it eludes you, as poor Phil discovered. When he dedicated himself to the greater good of being a better human being, the love he sought ensued as a by-product. Of course, Groundhog Day has a happy ending, it is a movie after all!
As for me, the object of my affection left saying he couldn’t state exactly why he knew it wouldn’t work out, just that it wouldn’t. I did not get multiple chances to get it right. And I am left to wonder if my behavior drove him away, at least in part. Relationships are complicated, I know nothing is that simple. But as to Frankl’s advice to let go and not care about it, focus on it, and yes obsess about it- well, I’m sorry to say I haven’t figured out how to do any of that.
Dear Reader, have you ever chased something only to have it elude you?
One day while rummaging through a box of my mother’s old photographs and documents I found her parent’s Certificate of Marriage. My maternal grandparents were Czech immigrants to America in the early 1900’s. Both were from small villages in the region of Bohemia. They met in Chicago and were married there on September 15, 1923. Stamped on the bottom corner of the certificate was the seal of the “Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.” Curious about who this congregation was and what they believed, I began a search to learn about them and in so doing to learn clues about the stock from which I had sprung.
I never knew either of my grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and is buried in Chicago. My grandmother remarried and moved to California but she died when I was only a year old. My mother told me little about her parents except that they owned and operated a “cigar and candy store” along with my great aunt. It was located on the south side of Chicago, a part of the city with a high concentration of ethnic Czech neighborhoods. They lived behind the store as was common in those days.
My mother rarely referred to her family or herself as Czech. Instead, they were “Bohemians” and they spoke “Bohemian.” Like many Europeans who had officially been citizens of large empires through the centuries, my ancestors had always identified themselves by their ethnicity and language.
When she did speak of her father, it was with pride in his active involvement within the Czech community. She remembered him organizing all sorts of musical programs and parade marches in which she participated. He helped to found a Czech school which my mother and her sister attended. Grandfather believed that it was important for Bohemian children to learn Czech history, culture and language. I now know that his efforts were in orchestration with the efforts of a larger community institution, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.
Founded in 1870 in Chicago, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers was formed by the large number of Czech immigrants in the city who abandoned the organized church when they reached America. As an alternative, they formed a secular institution that functioned in many ways like a church. The Bohemian Freethinkers built an extensive social network of schools, benevolent societies, and fraternal groups that provided a sense of community, belonging, and support.
Besides creating educational and cultural programs, they also provided public forums for political debates and avenues for social action. Freethinkers stayed connected through the publishing of Svornost, their own Czech language newspaper. The Congregation performed civil wedding ceremonies, as in the case of my grandparents, and secular baptisms for their children. They even founded the Bohemian National Cemetery in 1877 as no church would allow Freethinkers to be buried on church grounds.
At some point in their history together, my grandmother found her way to a Protestant church but my grandfather did not follow her. And sometime after that they divorced, though my mother never spoke of it. Perhaps this explained, at least in part, why she told me so little about her parents.
Learning the history of the Bohemian Freethinkers has indeed brought me a greater understanding of my grandparents. But it is my grandfather to whom I feel most connected. He was a poet who promoted the arts. He was proud of his heritage and loved its history and culture. He was open-minded and brave enough to be independent in thought. I am a writer and a musician. I am dedicated to life-long learning and cultural enrichment. The older I get, the more individuated I become and the more willing I am to embrace change. The more of a Freethinker I become.
I regret that I never knew my grandfather. But even the little bit that I do know explains some of who I am, how I think, and what I love. We are much alike he and I and it is comforting to think that a little bit of him lives on in me. So it is to him that I dedicate this blog’s journey.