Column: Advice for the New Year: Look Both Ways


The clock ticks, the ball drops, the music starts, and everyone, tight or sober, waxes philosophical. We have our traditions, and some of them have deeper roots than we think. The word “January” comes from Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and endings. He is depicted with two faces, one looking forward and one back, and we honor him still by beginning the new year as we do. Our thoughts are disjointed and ambivalent, but if we need help getting started, there are endless lists of the best and worst in literature, film and music, to name just a few. Some adore the holiday for the festivities, and some detest it for the social demands, but all of us go through the ritual of looking back on what has characterized the year that is closing and of anticipating the one that is about to open. It’s not an empty ritual, however. There is so much more to be made of turning the corner than the old cliché “out with the old and in with the new.”

In his poem The Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy devotes two stanzas to the gloomy imagery of the close of 19th century, then lights up his verse with two more on a bird that finds reason enough to sing out with “some blessed hope.” Most of us are more cheerful about the past than Hardy’s speaker, but it’s not difficult to recognize a familiar pattern in his poem: a sadness for unfulfilled dreams, for the loss of family and friends, for missteps and failures, followed by a tentative and hopeful desire for better days ahead.

When I was young, and perhaps for half my life, my attention seemed riveted on the future. In grade school, I was eager to become a teenager, and when I reached that goal, I wanted to be an adult. As our children grew, my wife and I anticipated the future through their eyes, and only rarely did we regret the passage of time.

Then, at some point, I found myself less eager to put the past behind me and less fervent with the need to open a new year with fresh hopes. It’s not that I dread the future, even when I think about my own mortality; I just see more continuity these days between the past and the future.

Occasionally, I fall victim to nostalgia, particularly when I wish my parents could see their grandchildren as adults or hear their great grandchildren read aloud; but most of the time I am just aware that the past is with me in profound ways as I move forward in time. The past provides context, and it’s part of our responsibility as adults to occasionally tell our stories. When I was 20, I spent three months riding a motorcycle through Europe, and for three months the only word I had from my family was an occasional letter that anticipated my arrival in Berlin or Oslo. No cell phones, no telephone at all, and no email. It wasn’t until my plane landed in New York on my return trip that I learned my older sister had gotten married. Today the experience would be so different: a mother could check Facebook and see a picture of the lunch her son ate that very day.

For stories we don’t need Ancient Mariners endlessly telling cautionary tales, but yesterday’s enduring truths can help us make sense in the chaos of accelerating change. My wife’s grandfather was born in 1876, and when he was the age I was when my motorcycle took me to the museum at Dachau, he was an infantryman in the Battle of San Juan Hill experiencing war first-hand. He survived and lived until 1963. Her father is 93 and pretty good with email and a cell phone. Their two lives span the time between the Battle of Little Bighorn and the re-election of Barack Obama and includes everything in between: the proliferation of automobiles, the discovery of vaccines for polio and influenza, air travel, space travel, two world wars and the Holocaust, and the decoding of the human genome, to name just a few. It is their experience that has brought us to where we are.

Looking ahead is as important as looking back, and here the young can show us the way with their excitement for technology, their hunger for information and their legitimate belief that they will, at least for a while, inherit the earth. It is they who now hear the song of the thrush and who will join others already at work on solutions to today’s problems. Their research will tame cancer, will outpace pandemics and will figure a way to bring cell reception to mountain hollows. They will devise transportation systems that will make our interstates look like mule paths, and they will figure out how to feed the world’s hungry. They will finally write the Great American novel.

They won’t always succeed. They will make mistakes as we have, and in their lives they will know both war and peace. We can help them by telling our stories because, more than ever, knowing about the past will equip them for a future where change will accelerate even faster, and every day will bring a brave new world. Consider this: There are children in middle school today who can expect to live in three different centuries. With all the change they will experience, imagine the stories they will be able to tell to the young when it is their turn.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.