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Why Groundhog Day feels like the perfect symbol of our pandemic year

Shubenacadie Sam is suffering something of an existential crisis.

“Do groundhogs get déjà vu or is that feeling just our normal feeling?” his Twitter feed asked Monday.

Sam, it should be said — though this is sure to ruffle some fur — is one of the continent’s preeminent prognosticators of spring.

Every year at this time, to much pomp and ceremony, Sam pops out of his little white hut at the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park in Nova Scotia and checks out the weather. If he sees his shadow, it’s seen as a prediction that we’re in for another six long weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, an early spring is said to be on the way. (Ontario readers may be more familiar with Sam’s fellow furry forecaster, Wiarton Willie.)

This year, there’s a storm heading to Nova Scotia on Sam’s big day … just like there was this time last year. And while those storm clouds may — forgive me — foreshadow an early spring for those who like their weather warm, it’s left Sam feeling a bit out of sorts.

To be fair, most of Sam’s days revolve around either napping or snacking, so perhaps that déjà vu is just his status quo.

But for many across the country, the past year under the coronavirus pandemic has seemed — as it did in Bill Murray’s iconic time-loop movie from 1993 — like one Groundhog Day after another. (Or is that really just one long Groundhog Day?)

For Sam, this year will be a lot different. Gone will be the crowds surrounding his pen. There will be no bagpipers, no town criers at the park. Instead, in deference to the coronavirus, Sam’s gala appearance will be virtual — streamed live on social media.

But for much of the country, the same pandemic that has injected a little variety into Sam’s annual routine has driven us to distraction. For many, the past year has been an endless series of repetitive days blurring into one another — a Groundhog Day.

“One of the components of Groundhog Day, essentially, is that perception of — rather than feeling like you’re changing and making progress toward some kind of a future goal — you feel like you’re repeating yourself over and over again,” said Anne Wilson. “The feeling of change is stymied in some way.”

Wilson, a professor in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, studies the psychology of time perception.

She cites a meme that has been making the rounds on social media: A satellite looking down over the Earth begins to zoom in on a point of land … and keeps zooming infinitely. After a few seconds, it becomes evident that the satellite is zooming in on the same piece of land continuously. A fractal zoom. An endless progression toward an unreachable destination.

“It’s a really great representation of the Groundhog Day idea,” said Wilson. “It’s been going around as a way of representing the way that COVID feels to people; that every time you feel like you’re reaching the end, then there’s another one and then there’s another one, and then there’s another one.”

That repetitious feeling has a lot to do with the disruption of what Wilson calls temporal markers. Those are the things that typically mark our progress through time; vacations, holiday get-togethers, the start or end of a school year.

When those usual patterns are missing or disrupted, it makes days seem similar to one another. So, our perception of the passage of time becomes altered — an unending trip through a featureless tunnel.

There’s another aspect, too. According to U of T’s Sam Maglio, an assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management, people’s sense of uncertainty about the future affects their sense of time.

Shubenacadie Sam, pictured here at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park, in Nova Scotia, will make his annual spring prediction on Tuesday, a.k.a. Groundhog Day

According to Maglio’s research, if people have a certain end point — for example, if they know exactly how long a road trip will be — then time feels like it’s flowing more quickly toward that end point. If the future end point is uncertain, as has been the case with COVID-19, time feels like it’s dragging.

“If we kind of know when something is going to end, or when we’re going to hit the next stage of something, then we have more of a sense of the passage of time,” said Wilson of Maglio’s research. “So, it’s clear how close or far away the next milestone is going to be.”

“But we have a situation with COVID right now where it’s sort of like changing the goalposts.”

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There’s a twist here, though, a weird positive to tease out of the COVID-19/Groundhog Day morass.

The thing that makes Groundhog Day an iconic movie is that so many people relate to it. And the reason that so many feel like 2020 has been a Groundhog Day kind of year, says Wilson, is because we are experiencing some profoundly common sorts of experiences.

“As a society, there’s a way in which we’re much more connected to one another, psychologically than we often are,” she said. “Because we all have to be going through this at the same time.”

And perhaps that — the sharing of the existential crisis — can offer Shubenacadie Sam some hope that, when he pops out of his white hut at this time next year to prognosticate on the spring, his pen will be once again surrounded by adoring fans.

To quote noted American philosopher and movie protagonist Phil Connors: “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.”



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