I vowed that when I wrote this essay about new years and Januarys, I would not say one word about how horrible 2020 was or how 2021 is bound to be better. We’ve all shared that sentiment far too many times, haven’t we? Enough already! I wished to escape the timely bemoaning here and concentrate on the timeless beckoning of change.
The ancient Romans, who named the month of January, certainly recognized it as a time of transition. They named it after Janus, the god who had two faces so that he could look both forward and backward at the same time. We tend to forget that as human beings our lives are, above all else, ones of transition. As ironists have pointed out forever, the only permanent truth in this strange world is that everything always changes.
The Bible recognizes this mutability in human affairs. Although the King James Version frequently states, “It came to pass,” it does not, to my knowledge, ever state “It came to stay.” If only...
This point was vividly brought home to me years ago when I was glancing at that page in the newspaper reserved for the Ultimate Transition: the obituaries. My eye was caught by a picture of a very beautiful woman in her mid or late twenties. Even before I started to read the article I felt a vague sadness that a person so young and vibrant had died. Imagine my surprise when the first sentence revealed that the woman had just passed away at the age of 91!
At first I was somewhat bemused by the vanity of the deceased’s family for putting a picture in the newspaper which could have easily been mistaken for the woman’s great-granddaughter. But then I realized that since this woman’s life was now over and was being reviewed as a whole in an obituary, why would a likeness of her age at 90 be any more appropriate than one taken in her twenties? Is the most recent picture we take somehow more accurate than any other? Since life is always a series of changes, who can determine which photograph—snapped in merely one second of life (if lived to age 91) that will contain 2,869,776,000 seconds—is most representative?
Great literature has not only recognized this peculiar and precarious human condition of change, but it has addressed it in two important ways. First, believe it or not, the structure and theme of almost every great novel or short story you have ever read depended more upon a character’s transition than upon any other element. All great stories begin with a character placed in a situation that demands change; all great stories end immediately after that change has or has not been accomplished.
That’s why a title such as Gone with The Wind is so satisfying. It captures both the fragile nature of the antebellum South and the obliterating change that the war will bring. Dickens’ wonderful title Great Expectations summarizes in two words both Pip’s dream of big change for the better and the bitterness he’ll experience when that dream proves shallow and false. Change is the prime catalyst for all plots. Each story is a journey from initial innocence to ultimate maturity. Each of our lives is too.
But great literature also teaches us that amid all the chaotic transitions that inundate our lives, there is one element that can be unchanging. And that is our inner-self, that solitary and unseen combination of inherited and learned traits that comprise our unique personality. In religion, it is called the Soul; in literature, it is called the Essential Self. It is the ElliotEngelness of me, and the Youness of each of you, my readers.
The most impressive and inspirational characters in literature—and in our lives—are those with very strong essential selves, those who bask in a perpetual summer of being only themselves. Huck Finn, Jane Eyre, Sidney Carton, and Atticus Finch all defy the petty snobbery and fair-weather friendships of proper society and instead stand firm for values and virtues that are timeless. They teach us that even though we must all change in our journey from innocence to experience, certain sterling qualities within us (such as loyalty and empathy) must never change because, if they do, then our own character is doomed to diminish to that of a wavering hypocrite.
And so it is probably not a coincidence that Janus, the Roman god of Change, also happened to be Two-Faced.