Swimmer Maarten van der Weijden inadvertently provided the most beautiful metaphor for our situation last Sunday: in a new attempt to raise money for cancer research, he swam against the current for 32 hours and 7 minutes non-stop. In a swimming pool, so without moving forward. The time he swam the Elfstedentocht to loud cheers, at least he was going somewhere, but now he was swimming stationary.
My first thought was: is that man still swimming against cancer? Hadn’t he already done that?
Immediately afterwards I realized how strange this thought was. It is not as if the problem of cancer has been solved since Van der Weijden’s Elfstedentocht. It is also not as if Van der Weijden’s performance was less impressive this time. It may seem so, because we are used to it by now. But he was probably still a bit tired afterwards.
Yet there was that first reaction: huh? Didn’t this already happen?
I thought the same this week with the call for a lockdown, the discussion about the closure of schools, the edifying words at the press conference. Even the quasi-wisdom ‘Death is part of life’ came up again, in an opinion piece in the Volkskrant. An argument like the mold on my bathroom ceiling, which comes back every few months despite thorough combat.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” people keep saying, referring to the 1993 film in which weather forecaster Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, experiences the same day over and over in the cold and dull village of Punxsutawney.
Funny that people are coming up with that now, because isn’t just about everything in life a kind of Groundhog Day? Every year Christmas, Sinterklaas, the seasons, buying delicacies in the French supermarket or eating croquettes in Marbella: Groundhog Day. Cleaning the stove and taking out the old paper every week: Groundhog Day. Get up every morning, shower, brush your teeth: Groundhog Day. Never are teeth and stove clean once just forever.
In general, we don’t mind these kinds of repetitions – we don’t think about them, or we find them reassuring. Repetition only becomes disturbing when it concerns unpleasant events, and when we cannot escape them. That applies in the film: Bill Murray cannot leave the village, he is forced to submit to the situation every day.
Still, and this snowballs into the Groundhog Day metaphor, each repetition at once is an entirely new situation. In the movie, Phil Connors wakes up in the same bed with the same voices on the radio, but each day unfolds in a different way. And the main character does have influence on those details. His actions have consequences for real people, who experience the day no less intensely than the previous days.
This also applies to Maarten van der Weijden’s latest swimming exercise. His water-wrinkled hands are the same, but the money he raises goes toward new research and may help new cancer patients. The action is less impressive, but is just as essential.
It also applies to all corona developments. Another lockdown? Aren’t we a bit ‘done with that’ now? No, because even though the situation feels familiar and therefore less impressive, it still has just as real consequences. The people who are dying now have just as much (and just as sad) survivors as the dead of the first wave. The ICU nurses run just as much risk of burnout, or even more. The fact that we get used to it does not make the concrete drama any less great.
And not only are the details just as real, we also have just as much influence on them, just like in the film, as before. What we do matters: do we sit in a packed cafe, or even on a party bus to a German disco? Or do we just let that sort of thing sit for a while, waiting for better times? Do we do rapid tests, do we wear face masks? It may all feel pointless, but it isn’t. That is also what Phil Connors discovers – in that respect the metaphor is exactly right.
Floor Rusman ([email protected]) is editor of NRC
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on November 27, 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 27, 2021