The Human Condition:

Janus, God of Doorways – January 2, 2022

Janus coin

Well … it’s the New Year, 2022. Anymore, after the last two years, in reaching this calendar change I feel like an exhausted swimmer putting my hand on the pool coping tiles after completing far too many laps. The hope is we get a respite, an easy year, no excitement, with a pandemic that becomes something familiar and relatively tame like the flu, with a supply chain that unsnarls itself, with inflation that subsides as the economy continues strong and those supplies keep comping, and with the saber-rattling easing over the Ukraine and Taiwan. Well, I can hope.

The date and the month have me thinking about that peculiar name, “January.” It comes from Janus, who was the Roman god of doorways, gateways, passages, transitions, and similar movements from one thing to another. He is always depicted as having two faces, looking forward and also backward. Forward to the new year, backward on the old. We show something similar in our more modern cartoons around this time, of the past year depicted as a tired old man, the new year as a smiling, bouncy baby. Or at least I hope the baby is smiling.

Janus is also where we get our world “janitor.” In ancient times, among the better families who tended to shape language, every well-equipped house had someone who answered the door and announced guests—and likely had a bit of physical strength and prowess to block the door and bolt it against assailants and vagabonds. In more recent times, this person would be the butler or—if you’re an aficionado of Downton Abbey—perhaps a footman. In either case, the janitor was an important member of the household, because he would guard the door, admit friends and guests, and turn away political enemies, beggars, and robbers. It was a job with a lot of discretion.

In the last century, the job of janitor has morphed into someone employed by an institution—a school, hospital, or commercial establishment—to perform routine cleaning, pick up obvious trash, and attend to the messes that the inmates and visitors create. And that seems pertinent to the end of the past year: we’ve got a lot of messes that everyone is pointing to and complaining about, but no one seems to be cleaning them up.

Janus is the god of transitions, of moving from one state to the next, and incidentally picking up the litter that the previous events have left behind. Every former state or condition leaves its mark in broken promises, dashed expectations, scattered confetti, dirty plates, and torn paper. Before you can move on, the god of transitions has to look back and clean up the former mess.

Something in the human brain wants a fresh start every so often. That tends to include a good nap, a hot bath or shower, a solid meal, and a cup of coffee. At the same time, we reflect on what has just happened, what we have been through, what personal decisions we make about the experience, and how we would like to remember it. That’s the way we put things behind us, brighten up, manage to smile, and get ready to charge ahead into the next crisis or challenge. And here, too, Janus is our guiding spirit, looking backward and looking forward at the same time—the god of passages and transitions.

And so we head into 2022 after a relaxing New Year’s Day, with a nap, a meal, and a cup of coffee. I only wish I didn’t hear in my head a paraphrase of that Bette Davis line in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”