Groundhog Day

It's sunny today, so I guess that means the groundhog is going to see its shadow and give us six more weeks of winter.* Why is it that we so often take good things as harbingers of disaster? I know I do: something goes right--I get a few pages written, I find just the right sheets for our bed, I listen to a song in the car that makes me feel happy--and I immediately start looking for the catastrophe that is sure to follow. It's as if we feel we are tempting the universe by enjoying our lives. "Oh, don't get comfortable," we hear that little voice saying: "It can't last."

But I think it's even more sinister than this. It's not just that bad times will follow good, but that we think good times invite the bad, like some reverse karma. "If I've been this lucky this far, it's sure to change. The balance must be restored." But what is this balance? Medieval Christians thought in terms of the Wheel of Fortune**: a king sits on top, arrayed in all his glory; but as the wheel turns, he falls and loses his crown. And yet, the wheel continues to turn, and so he rises back up to the top.

What does this mean? That luck is cyclical? That if times are bad, all we need to do is hold onto the wheel and trust that it will lift us back up? Certainly, the groundhog has nothing permanent to fear: eventually, the snow will melt, the earth will warm back up and the rains will bring new leaves on the trees and flowers in the grass. But, again, that's not what I find myself usually thinking when something goes well. More typically my thought is, "Oh, no, if things are this good, I'm really in for it."

It's a curious superstition, but then what else is superstition than the conviction that we spend our lives tempting Fate? "If I do this now, maybe the disaster won't come." Because we are certain that the disaster will come; arguably, even more certain if it hasn't hit us yet. As, of course, it will: we are all going to die. But why should this knowledge (if it is knowledge) make it so difficult to enjoy life when it is good? "Oh, the sun is out; that means the weather is going to be beastly for the next six weeks."

My exercise for the day is going to be to enjoy the sunlight while we have it. I am struggling even as I write this, looking out over the sparking white expanse of the snow-covered Midway. I want to feel joyous, remembering today not as the day that the groundhog was frightened, but rather the day on which Simeon rejoiced to have seen with his own eyes the salvation prepared by the Lord, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:32). Can we really believe this hope? That the light has come--and is going to stay with us for ever? Ah, that would be something to come out of our burrows for.

[Image of the Presentation in the Temple from the University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, MS 348, at None for the Little Office of the Virgin. The creature in the bottom margin isn't a groundhog, but it's clearly looking for something....]

*Which isn't that surprising, given that I live in Chicago. We always have six more weeks of winter after February 2!
**No, not the game show.


  1. ha, funny, I just wrote my post on Groundhog Day and then I saw you had one titled this too. Slightly different though! Hope you enjoy mine. Maybe something I should have put on the "25 things" list.

  2. For once, people's mathematical instincts are correct. This is simply regression towards the mean. If things are good, random chance dictates the next moment, hour, day, year will be less good. If bad, chances are things will be better. I find this very comforting. That and the thought that the glaciers will eventually return and grind everything into the earth.

  3. According to Wikipedia s.v. "Groundhog Day" (thanks, Vanessa!), the Pennsylvania German custom of asking a groundhog for meteorological advice "has its origins in ancient European weather lore, wherein a badger or sacred bear is the prognosticator as opposed to a groundhog."* So, I'd say Badger is probably right: the glaciers will get us in the end. : )

    *Wikipedia references Don Yoder, Groundhog Day (2003) for this info.

  4. I know I'm the dour Calvinist injecting a grim point of view, but the question for me is never whether or when things will 'even out,' but why good things happen to me at all. Like the workers for hire in the parable, I still feel I am 'owed' something more from the master. But when I really stop to think about it, the question is not 'Why do bad things happen to good people?' but rather 'Why do good things happen to us at all?'


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