The two-headed Roman god Janus aptly symbolizes our personal, national and planetary era. One head looks back and the other forward; one represents the past, the other the future; the god of endings and beginnings. The commentary about Janus notes that traditionally one head tends to lie while the other tells the truth (and it was not certain which, so he was considered capricious, or “two-faced,” as we say today!); the two heads were also said to understandably often disagree while trying to reconcile contrasting perspectives and points of view; and one face was said to be a pessimist and other an optimist.
But of all of Janus’ characteristics the primary one was that he was the god of all beginnings, the spirit of doorways (janai) and archways (jani). He presided over beginnings and transitions and was particularly associated with the season of plantings and, of course, the first month of the year (January). He was thus the god of movement who could envision and facilitate change and progress.
For me, our world of pervasive, uncomfortable transitions is a "Janus world” as we attempt to reconcile our past with a wild rush into the future while somehow offering a perspective on the future. A bit of a life’s past and future Janus-like duality resides in my psyche, and I suspect in yours as well.
This reflection was initiated by my own attempts to find some reconciliation and reckoning with the past (racism, war, environmental degradation) while also squinting my way into what kind of unpredictable, transitory future awaits my grandchildren. I read daily one revelation after another about the trials, tribulations and grievances that have beset our world, past and present, and then I read of the incredible successes of science and the slow but sure advances of social inclusiveness (Title 9 for women, wide acceptance of sexual differences, for example). I was fascinated with the news and commentary this week focused on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in terms of taking over the creative and daily functions of our lives. (Yes, I’m starting to be concerned that an AI program can write better than I do, and personal evidence for that is evident every time my computer jumps in and spell-checks me or sends red underlines that subject and verb don’t agree.) I am just beginning to realize the ramifications of AI, but we have known for some time, of course, that chess playing computers can routinely beat chess masters, and I have recently been reading about how robots have remarkable success with medical procedures (important to me as I face hip surgery next month, hopefully by the warm, gloved hands of my surgeon) as well as more applications in industry and our daily lives than I can imagine. Where does it all end? Will my grandchildren simply boot up the latest robotic wizardry to make decisions, write and create for them instead of calling upon their imagination and moral compass?
The god Janus was endowed with considerable sophistication that allowed him to become the god of time, past and future, but he was actually still grounded in time present. Unike Janus, perhaps, we still must deal with our feelings, our joys, our love, our crises in real time. As I reflect Janus-like about what it means to be alive today, I try to be aware of, and reckon with, my personal and cultural history that defined my lifetime while also making sure I am also envisioning a positive future. Like Janus, perhaps, I am tempted to lie and ignore the bad parts of the past. But I also sense, like that young, forward looking face of Janus, that we are at thresholds, beginnings, that we can’t even imagine. Janus can remind us to hold a vision of a positive and hopeful future as well.
Whether we choose to reckon with our past or not, it continues to reside in our psyches, in one of our dual “faces.” But a forward looking face will also continue to abide in us, and lead us, reminding us to continue to envision and work toward a sustainable future.