Western culture owes much to the Greeks and Romans. Philosophy, Christian Theology, and our judicial system, for instance, are much indebted to Athens and Rome. Greek and Roman mythology permeates the English vocabulary. Our calendar is Roman. The first month of the year, January, is named for the Roman god, Janus, who is guardian of portals and patron of beginnings and endings. He is shown as having two faces, one in front, and the other at the back of his head. The symbolism is that the first month of the year is a time for reviewing the past and contemplating the future.
Many people are hesitant about looking back because of painful experiences in the past. Leroy "Satchel" Paige, the clever baseball player, in a Collier Magazine article in 1953 titled "Time Ain't Gonna Mess with Me", gave us that much quoted quip: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you". There are people whose life experiences are such that they feel something dangerous from the past is forever closing in on them. It is axiomatic that being preoccupied with the past may endanger one's future welfare. There is some truth in the "Satchel Paige Philosophy", but it is not the whole truth. It should be heard with one ear. Inattention to the past can cause us to repeat old mistakes that present themselves in new forms. George Santayana warned, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Perhaps it would be better to listen to the wise warning of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, in the preface of "The Gulag Archipelago", said: "Dwell on the past and you will lose one eye. Forget the past and you will lose both eyes".
Thinking of history as linear rather than circular is a more positive way of looking at reality. There are aspects of history which tend to be repeated, but let us hope that not all history will be repeated. That is too much determinism! Journalist, Norman Cousins, was on target when he said, "History is a vast early warning system". That is true in both world and personal history. We cannot change the past, although many people spend considerable time and effort trying. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has a quatrain that addresses our predicament with regard to the past.
"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it"
It is easy to speak authoritatively of the past because it is the one aspect of life about which we have 20/20 vision. Not so with the future. Even the people who are best trained in the science of predicting the future (if it can be called a science) are often wrong. There are too many variables and too much that is unexpected to allow reliable accuracy. It is like weather forecasting. Patrick Young said, "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it is right too often to ignore, and wrong too often to rely on it". Even using our best information and judgment about life is like that. The only sure thing about the future is that it will surprise even the most perceptive.
We do not know what is going to happen in our lives tomorrow, or next week, or next year. In one of her novels, Sue Grafton begins with a strange and interesting paragraph that reminds us of this fact.
"Sometimes I think how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future - a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead. Some moments we see would make no sense at all and some, I suspect, would frighten us beyond endurance. Time, of course, only runs in one direction, and it seems to do so in an orderly progression. Here in the blank and stony present we are shielded from the
knowledge of events that await us, protected from knowledge of the future by blind ignorance."
The book of Ecclesiastes puts it more succinctly. "God has made everything to suit its time; moreover God has given us a sense of time past and future, but we cannot see what God is doing from the beginning to end". (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11) We are pilgrims, ignorant of how it all began and blind to how it will end. Our only beacon is faith in that transcendent being by whose hand we came into the world unaided by any effort of our own. And, we are dependent upon that same being for a safe exit.
As we squint into the foggy future with the forward-looking face of Janus, get ready for some surprises. Some of them will be good surprises - and some will be scary. Draw on the past for wisdom, trust God for what you cannot see, and play the hand you are dealt as best you can.
Several years ago, physicist Edward Teller,reputed to be the father of the hydrogen bomb, summed up the human predicament rather well when he opined, "Life improves slowly, goes wrong fast, and only catastrophe is clearly visible".
Get ready for the future. It is coming whether we are ready for it or not. Remember Janus - look both ways, and then keep on trucking.