One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray. It is an old movie now; maybe you could call it a classic. The lead character – Phil Connors – relives the same day – February 2 Groundhog Day, over and over thousands of time. No matter what he does during the day, he wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania at 6:00 am on February 2 to a clock radio playing Sony and Cher “I got you babe” and nothing has changed. Nobody except Phil has any memory of the past experience. He gets to move to the next day only after he gets the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day just right. He starts making better connections among the people of the town fitting into their lives and helping them. Finally he feels he has done the best he can and the next time he wakes up it is February 3. I saw the movie dozens of times and probably read too much into it, but the reason I like it so much is that it made me think about pursuing excellence.
Way back in my classical education days, I was enamored with the Stoic philosophy. I read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” in Greek class (although mostly on the English side of the Loeb Classic, I admit) and studied how Stoicism influenced Western thinking in general. What I took away was that you accept your task, do your duty, not expecting necessarily to get credit or even to succeed. You cannot control what happens to and around you, but you can control your response. It is more complicated than this but IMO “Groundhog Day” tends to follow the outlines of Stoicism.
In the end, it is not so much about what Phil does as what he becomes. He realizes that perhaps he cannot change the things that happen around him, but he can change and improve himself; control his own responses to the circumstances and in that way find his own place and control his own destiny. When he achieves excellence, and lives the perfect day, he can move to the next step.
Foreign Service life can be like “Groundhog Day.” We go to assignments in different places but lots of things are the same. I often had the feeling that I am reliving the same experience. I do the same things and apply similar strategies and sometimes I feel like I have not really made any progress. Things seem pretty much the same after I leave as they were before I arrived. Each time, however, I hope that I can learn something and do better next time. I always joke that it is better to be lucky than smart, but joke or not it is true that much depends on circumstances. You have to adjust to the environment and its particular opportunities and threats. Sublime plans executed by superb teams can fail in an unfavorable environment and poorly planned and executed plans can succeed when things are just right. You have some control in that you can sometimes choose the environment where you will act, but not always and things will change, often in unexpected ways. Today’s royal road to success may be tomorrow’s path to perdition. Brazil may be the last day in my “Groundhog Day” saga and I think this time it will be the perfect day, or at least as near perfect as possible in this imperfect world outside the world of movies. Circumstances are great. Our Brazilian friends want many of the same things we do in the key area of educational exchanges and they are willing to put resources behind their aspirations. This opportunity arrived almost exactly the same time I did and it made education and related institution linkages the theme of my time here. My team in Brazil is as good as I could get. I am halfway through my time here and things have worked out much better than I expected or predicted. My problem has been too many opportunities. I have had the luxury of taking choosing from among them. This is harder than it seems, since I have to turn down good proposals, but it is better than the alternative.
In fact, sometimes I am tempted to look for a reason to flee Brazil early so that I can quit while I am ahead, before my Royal Road turns into perdition’s highway. I am afraid my luck won’t hold. But then I think again about the Stoicism. My job is not done. I need to persist until the end, take the sweet with the bitter. Besides, sneaking out early is not a realistic option and I am reasonably certain I can hold it together.
Most other jobs I could get would be a letdown anyway. I cannot think of a better place to work as a public affairs officer, no place I would rather work and no time I would rather be doing it. In public affairs, this is the chance of a generation in Brazil. I always tell people that five years ago would have been too soon and five years from now might be too late and I believe it. The connections we help create between the American and the Brazilian people shape relations between our countries for the rest of my lifetime and beyond. It is too important to let it go before I have done everything that I can do.
My picture up top is a posed picture of us in front of a group of Brazilian English teachers who will go to a variety of U.S. universities to learn to teach English better. Two years ago, we sent twenty. Last year we sent fifty. This year we will send 1080. This is an example of the opportunities. Our Brazilian friends want to send them and pay for their tuition. U.S. institutions are happy to have them and we (the Mission) facilitate the connection. All of us “suits” look alike, don’t we?