In my early 30s and propelled by a marital crisis, I
embarked on an intense four-year spiritual journey.
During that odyssey, I was introduced to the concept of
spirit animals. These animals often appear as guides and
represent various traits and skills we need to learn. They
can continue to appear throughout our lives too. Call me
crazy, but I wasn’t going to deny an animal the chance to
teach me an important lesson or two. One of my fellow
seekers told me about a brilliant encounter she had with
an eagle that flew directly toward her in an otherworldly
face-to-face moment of sublime communication. So I
invited, and fully expected, a future rendezvous with my
spirit animal. I particularly fancied the idea of meeting a
rare beauty—a powerful, exotic Siberian tiger that would
choose to be my guide.
In the meantime, a few months after my experience
with the mysterious night visitor, I happened to be at my
soon-to-be ex-husband’s house. I paused alone in the thick
woods behind the house we’d shared, surveying the beauty
of the place, tied up so tightly in melancholy memories.
Suddenly, I heard an animal in the woods and watched
as it approached, waddling right toward me without any
hesitation. What an unusual event! It certainly caught
my attention, as I had never seen an animal like it in the
seven years I lived in and walked through those woods. It
was very chubby and low to the ground, with very short
legs. I found no reason to be afraid of the animal, and I
guess the feeling was mutual because it came right up to
me before lumbering off. I recognized it from pictures I’d
previously seen—it was a groundhog. Still, I didn’t put
two and two together.
The Mystery Revealed
Then, like peeling an onion, the riddle started to
reveal itself in layers. Years later, I told the story of my
nighttime visitor to an intuitive counselor who asked me
if the condo was in the woods. I told her it was and that I
was sure the builder had to cut down many trees. “What
you experienced was a ghost animal,” she delivered with
conviction. Although that thought never occurred to me, it
felt absolutely right.
Mulling this over, I remembered the daytime encounter
with the groundhog, recognizing the same short-legged
lumbering footfalls, the same size, heavy breathing, and
fearlessness. I surmised my night visitor had been a
groundhog too. The groundhog chose me! My spirit animal
was a chubby little bucktoothed vegetarian, leading the life
of a solitary rodent. What did it mean? I wondered. What
was its message? Was I hogging the earth?
I thought about the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, an
irreverent, delightful comedy that had blessed me with
bountiful food for thought. The main character in the film
is Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), a self-centered,
egotistical, hypercritical, antisocial man who repeats the
same day over and over again. He does this by ending his
life, day after day, when he realizes he’s trapped in time.
Ultimately, he grasps that he needs to make a different
choice—so he becomes perfect. Phil grows into a splendid
pianist, a superb ice sculptor, a modest man, and a gracious
social facilitator who successfully sets aside all ego and
judgment to love people unconditionally.
I decided that the screenplay was exploring the profound
question, “What would you do with eternity?” (Recently,
I discovered that’s exactly what Danny Rubin had in mind
when he wrote the screenplay.)
Another layer became clear just a few years ago, at a time
when I was teaching creative writing to elementary school
students. One day, I unconsciously selected the subject
of the groundhog for their writing topic. In doing some
research, I learned that the groundhog is one of the rare
animals on earth that enter true hibernation. Their body
temperature and heart rate plunge when they sleep half the
year underneath the frost line in complex burrows. Their
pattern of sleeping and waking seem to be an apt metaphor
to our series of lives.
Of course, the groundhog is most famous for its
eponymous holiday on February 2, when the animal
emerges from its burrow and portends six more weeks
of winter if it sees its shadow. The shadow is prominently
known in psychology as the dark side of the personality, all
that is repressed and unconscious. Yet another layer of the
mystery is revealed in looking at the shadow. By bringing
our shadow into the light, we can see how we’ve projected
dark thoughts and fears onto other people. Then we can
forgive ourselves and begin to heal.
My little groundhog may enter my life again to teach me
yet another lesson. I believe the creature appeared to remind
me I’ve done all of this before. I’ve lived over and over again
and need to get the business of living right this time by
choosing a loving attitude with all people in all situations
and leaving fear behind. It’s time to heal the shadow, forgive,
and strive to be perfect—or as close as I can get.