Practice Versus Belief


Christmas and Hanukkah are over. It’s a new year. We’re no longer living in a season of faith and joy. We’re living in a season of resolution and self-improvement. It’s the most existential time of the year.

This year, about 80 percent of the people who make New Year’s resolutions will abandon them by February. There’s a dense psychology that examines why forming new habits is so tedious, but one reason is that we don’t truly believe in them. Like taking Holy Communion without believing in God, or cheering for a team that you don’t really like, it just doesn’t work that well.

The gap between what we practice and what we actually believe is an enduring theme in Western intellectual history. Aristotle opens Nichomachen Ethics by discussing how every activity has a natural end. Medicine is for health, shipbuilding for vessels, military strategy for victories, and economics for wealth. He uses the metaphor of an archer aiming at a target. To live well is to understand not just what we do but where we’re aimed.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about living authentically, the idea that we must acknowledge our freedom as conscious beings and accept that freedom comes with responsibility. If we decide to undertake a particular practice or be a particular way, we must fully and honestly commit to it. If we don’t, we are living in “bad faith.”

My favorite illustration of the interplay between belief and practice is Groundhog Day, a 1993 romantic comedy about an egocentric meteorologist named Phil Connors (Bill Murray). Connors reluctantly travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. A snowstorm forces his crew to spend the night in Punxsutawney much to the vexation of Connors. He wakes up the next day and it’s Groundhog Day again—and again and again.

Caught in a time loop, Connors behaves erratically. One day, he steals Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) and drives off a cliff into a quarry, killing himself and the groundhog. Another day, he intentionally drops a toaster into his bathtub. Repeated attempts at suicide prove useless.

Throughout the movie, Connors tries to get closer with his coworker Rita (Andie MacDowell). Most attempts end in failure but he eventually changes his ways and begins to focus on other people and not just himself. He becomes kinder and more compassionate. In the end, Rita “buys” Connors in an auction and they kiss. Snow begins to fall, indicating that time loop has been broken.

Failed New Year’s resolutions are like Connors’ failed attempts to break out of the time loop. Like the 40 percent of Americans who make resolutions, Connors experimented with new practices without genuinely changing his attitude. And while Groundhog Day is lighthearted in nature, it is essentially a moral fable, a story about how people mistakenly believe that the good life is about what they do in the world, when it’s actually about their outlook of the world.

In an interview, the co-writer of Groundhog Day Harold Ramis joked about letters he received from people who connected with the film. Buddhists thought it expressed a fundamental Buddhist concept. A Catholic priest said it captured the essence of Christian philosophy. People in the psychiatric community thought it was a metaphor for psychoanalysis.

In other words, the film speaks to a universal aspect of human nature—the experience of finding new meaning in old stuff, not because the old stuff changes, but because our beliefs about them do.

The gap between what we practice and what we believe is an ancient theme but it feels contemporary. We want to exercise more, but we know we won’t. We want to give more, but we know we won’t. Many things in life feel momentary—even fake—precisely because they are not grounded in genuine conviction. We relate to Phil Connors.

I was alerted to the existential insights of Groundhog Day after I read The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray. A few pages before his somewhat sinister suggestion to “Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly” Murray writes about finding enjoyable work. College students and young adults wonder what they are going to do in life instead of first figuring out what they intrinsically enjoy. They’re focused on a practice without a belief. It’s a common conceptual mistake with profound psychological consequences.

My favorite scene in Groundhog Day involves Connors contemplating his situation at a bar. He rhetorically asks an inebriated patron sitting nearby, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” The rugged looking truck driver quips, “That about sums it up for me.”

Does it for you?