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Punxsutawney Values: What America Can Learn From Groundhog's Day

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On February 2nd, more than 50,000 Americans will embark on an annual pilgrimage in search of the holy grail of weather forecasting -- Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who predicts when spring will come. Most of us know about Punxsutawney Phil from the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who plays the arrogant, manipulative and iconoclastic weatherman, Phil Connors, who tries to "make it" with Rita, the smart, kind features reporter played by Andie MacDowell. Connors has to re-live Groundhog Day over and over again until he becomes the kind, selfless, engaged and self-actualized person Rita naturally falls for. In the process, Phil Connors is influenced by the people of Punxsutawney, and the new, improved Phil Connors inspires Punxy.

Every Groundhog Day, as though in the movie, I think somehow I've been here before. There is uniformity to the background chatter that shapes the backdrop of our days. The weather, the news, the rhetoric, the blogs, and the politics are omnipresent; the negativity never-ending. The potshots lobbed across the air waves are bigger than any of the potholes cratered on the streets of Buffalo after a long hard winter. The left is against executive pay. The right is against union rights. Amidst the salvos, the middle remains silent. Many people talk, but nobody listens. There is much noise but little conversation.

This presidential election year, the Super PACs have already purchased their air time and drawn the battle lines to slash and burn the candidates, inevitably inflicting residual damage on America's soul. As I hope for just six more weeks of winter, I wonder what it would be like if somehow the candidates were magically beamed to Punxsutawney to trade places with Phil Connors, to wake up day after day on February 2nd until they learn to simply be kinder. Only then would they be allowed to move on to February 3rd.

What is magical about Punxsutawney is not just the movie or the mythical 127-year-old marmot known as the "prognosticator of prognosticators." The people and their values are the magic, and it is from the real people of Punxsutawney that America -- and our candidates -- can learn some real lessons. But first, you have to visit.

A little over two years ago on an ordinary Sunday in September, I, along with five of my colleagues from Purple America, dropped in on Punxsutawney. We were there to see if the real Punxy at all resembled the Hollywood version of the town. We were hardly an inconspicuous group. We came with a film crew to document the trip. I wore my "Searching for Values" hat. My colleagues consisted of my clinical psychologist wife, a 6'4" African-American Baptist preacher, a 6'7" high school principal, both dressed like the Men in Black, and an Indian Sikh businessman adorned with his traditional red turban and beard net.

Doubtless, there are many across America who would have just looked at us and passed us by, perhaps out of fear, indifference or intolerance. But in Punxsutawney, on every street corner friendly people reached out to us. Who were we? What were we doing in town? What did we want to know? People even waved from their cars. As we passed people on the street, they made eye contact, said hello, told us to have a "great day" and smiled.

The Danish-born comedian Victor Borge once said, "A smile is the shortest distance between two people." That's the way we felt in Punxy. We were welcomed, engaged and brought into the extended family. On a moment's notice, the mayor, police chief, city manager and school superintendent met with us to tell us about Punxy's people and values. Try for that in New York, Cleveland or D.C. and see what happens. When I visited Minneapolis this past summer and wanted to meet the director of a corporate foundation, I was abruptly brushed off. She wouldn't even take my phone call. Not so in Punxy.

And then there's the wealthy in Punxsutawney. We all know the expression, "With great privilege comes great responsibility," but how many in America are actually living this philosophy? In Punxsutawney, when we dropped in on one of the wealthiest people in town, she welcomed us to her gift shop, instantly made time for us, and was eager to answer our questions. We asked her how it's possible for a town of 4,600 people, where unemployment is high and the primary industry -- mining -- is long past its prime, to routinely raise $70,000 for Make a Wish, support its own Red Cross and Salvation Army chapters and rally around the unemployed, disabled, infirm and elderly. She replied, "That's just how the people here were raised. Those are their values."

"Is that how you were raised?" I asked the benefactor who had laid down a cool $2 million to convert a decayed part of Main Street into the headquarters for a culinary academy. "I was told to leave the world better than when I came into it," she replied.

And that, I believe, is the message that Punxy offers the rest of America. Welcome the stranger. Take care of the poor. Care about each other. Be self-reliant. Make sure that the unemployed get re-employed. Build community and solidarity. Make the best of what you have. Become a community of doers, not complainers. And treat people like family.

The message of Groundhog's Day is that America is a cup half-full and that life is predictable. Whether or not Phil sees his shadow, we know that Spring will come. But the other message of Punxsutawney -- that the values will make the cup overflow -- can transform our country. I hope that, when America wakes up again on February 3rd, that's the new message we all remember.

To learn more about America's values go to www.purpleamerica.us.

This post has been updated from an earlier published version.