Friday, December 31, 2010

On Entrances and Exits

If you knew there was a sealed envelope in your desk drawer with the exact date you are to die, would you open it?

About the only thing I know for sure about Janus is that the first month of the year is named after him, and the first day of that month was dedicated to him. He was Roman God of Gates and Doors, his distinctive two faces look toward what is behind and the other toward what lies ahead. His name appears in the title of this blog because that is what I want to do throughout the year.

The descendant traditions of Roman culture are not the only ones who at the end of the old and beginning the New Year, look backward and forward. We’ve been reminded ad nauseam of the “ten most important events of the past year”, and the ten most everything else in every area of life.

In his role as Guardian of Exits and Entrances, Janus was also believed to represent beginnings, as one must come through a door or gate to enter a new place. He was a natural for having his name for the first month of the year, a month referred to by the Ancient Romans as Ianuarius, taken from the Etruscan word jauna which means "door."

Crossing the threshold from 2010 to 2011 tonight is a human invention. I don’t think the operation of the universe has anything to do with the ball dropping at Time’s Square, and yet, however imprecise, the way we mark years reflect something of the way the universe works. Not only that, there seems to be something within us that needs to mark the passage of time. Our culture’s preoccupation with New Year’s resolutions are not imposed on us, unless simply by strength of tradition, but do reflect the sense that in the coming year we (as individuals and communities at all levels) will make some entrances and exits. There is nothing magic about the “New Year,” but recognizing the date change is a reminder of inevitable new beginnings and new endings.

So what would you do with the envelope? I can see a scene where I rush to open it, but a more likely one where I either burn it unopened or keep it sealed and unread. Although some folks believe that with access to a celestial mail system or the right interpretation of their scripture they could know the future, I’m not one of them.

In my view the “future” does not exist as an entity on a continuum with the past and present. The future is shaped by millions of acts made in the past and present. And if there is even a hint of any free will in these decisions, the future is unknowable. With apologies to John Calvin and whatever God in which you believe, the future is simply not yet. While we may see trends in the past and present that make certain results probably in the future, to my way of thinking anyway, they are just that. I choose to believe this because a) it makes sense to me, and b) it means that my decisions, however small, have the possibility of adding something better to the present and the future.

The question about the envelope is interesting because of what the possibility evokes. I come down on the side of not wanting to know the date of my death in the future; I don’t even want to know if President Obama will be reelected in 2012. I embrace the notion that my actions may have something to do with when my death comes; whether or not the President is reelected; and on other matters.

So I’ll keep on trying to understand the present by examining the past and seek to make decisions that will make the present better. It is of no little comfort that I have the counsel of so many friends in both these tasks. We have been through many entrances and exits together. Thank you!

- Milo


Debra said...

If one chose to open the envelope, I think the temptation would not be to make the most and best of the time s/he has left, but to try to manipulate circumstances to ensure that the envelope was wrong. Selfish obsession would result, rather than unselfish generosity of spirit.

Jerry said...

The longer I live, the more interested I become in the mystery of it all, on both a personal and more global level. I cherish the sense of it unfolding, so, no -- I wouldn't open the envelope and deny myself the pleasure of not knowing.

Milo Thornberry said...

Thanks Debra and Jerry for both your insights, which in different ways reminded me of what an old friend from Oklahoma used to say. He talked like a country bumpkin but was as bright as anyone I've ever known.

One time I heard him say, "Ya know, the problem with Adam and Eve was that they wanted to know everything and live forever. They had been given a wonderful life in a fruitful garden but they weren't content to be finite. Seems to me, they were just damned ungrateful for what they had been given. Ingratitude was their sin."

Bill said...

Kipling said that "Nothing focuses the attention like being shot at." I agree with you that the future is made of all the nows that coalesces around our lives. Knowing much of anything that is to come is not possible. Still the planner in me would open the envelop. I would think (I would like to think) that know date that I "shuffle off this mortal coil" would be very motivating. It would focus ones attention.

Milo Thornberry said...

I love the "shuffle off this mortal coil".

dan said...

nice New Year's post:

danny bloom (1949-2032)