Hanging With Janus

This is from January 2007, during a service on the Roman god Janus and the spirit of change …


I don’t know about you, but when asked to speak in public I will entertain ideas, consider ways in and out of the topic. If you’re unfortunate enough to live with me, you’ll even have to listen to me do this out loud.

So when Virginia asked me to say something about change and this time of year when the past and future meet, I noticed that my thoughts turned toward some helpful aphorisms, a few tips about how to handle change. A sort of rah-rah talk: Life takes its best shot at us, but we can overcome it, we can win, if you will. It just takes a mindset, a toughness, a posture of thinking and being.

And I was surprised, because, truthfully, that’s not my take on change. There’s a prayer that gets much closer, that is associated with people facing desperate change but that resonates with me universally.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Some change is personal and directed. I changed jobs recently. I absolutely meant to, it happened and I’m thankful. Here at Thomas Paine, look around you, we’ve changed—with hard work, some joy and a little pain. More power to all of us and our ability to effect change.

But that kind of change is in the minority, I think. Most change is beyond our control. It is impersonal. It is neither enemy not friend. It simply is. Change—with a bang—ushered in existence. The end of change will mark the death of that existence.

Change doesn’t care if I’m up for it or not. Change is a wave that will break across my bow over and over again.

And while, at 42, I still cling to a certain cloak of invincibility, here’s a truth I know: change can break me, like a boat in high seas. In fact, change will break me. And it will break you. There will come a time when life will give us more than we can bear alone.

Virginia and I learned a little about impersonal change this year. At the tail end of a pleasant vacation, change whacked us like a 2-by-4 to the side of the head.

Kelly, one of our two heretofore perfectly healthy kids, was in the hospital, severely anemic, with a bloody colon and no real good answer as to why. This wasn’t change we welcomed, nor anything that we had any real control over. And so we spent six long days in a hospital.

And I learned a couple things:

  • That my back, especially, doesn’t like sleeping on benches, But I can do it.
  • That I had a certain chauvinism about my healthy kids, a false pride that I had no right to – and correspondingly, a whiff of superiority regarding families where the kids had illnesses. It was one of the uncomfortable realizations of the year.
  • That I love my son with a depth and doggedness that I’d assumed but that isn’t always apparent in the normal day-to-dayness of life. And that I could not stop his suffering.
  • That Virginia and Peter and Kelly and I are blessed with so many people that care for us that it boggles the mind – and the heart.
  • That I believed it would all turn out alright.

Now, four months later, it has and it hasn’t.

Kelly is home and pretty much the kid he’s always been—the Charlie Browniest in the whole world. (I loved that line from the holiday pageant earlier this month.) And he most likely has Crohn’s Disease, he’ll most likely battle it his entire life, it will be unpleasant at times. It could cause him pain. He might need surgery. It might keep him from doing things that he otherwise might have done.

And, somehow, and I know this is a little crazy, it’ll turn out alright. Because that, I believe, is how it happens—first, you must imagine it. That is the irrational magic of the world.

And how do I reconcile that against the reality of impersonal change? I don’t know and, to a degree, I don’t care.

So, Janus, who looks back and looks forward, is a great god for this time of year, when we take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. But me, when I look back, I realize that my challenge is to look right in front of me, right here and right now. That is where I must meet change—on the front lines, as it happens, in the moment. Too often I’m everywhere but where I am. It’s pervasive: These things – and the gadgets our kids huddle over for hours each day—I’m not suggesting we lose them, just that we realize they are obstacles to being present.

So …

When I am with Kelly in the hospital and he is suffering, be there. When my wife needs my counsel or my sympathy or merely a wisecrack, be there. When a friend is moving, help. When I’m here, be here.

And, this is a hard one for guys, allow others to be here for me. Because isn’t that why we’re here? Because we know that truth about change—that we’re not up to it alone, that we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need communities of love and support.

That’s the bedrock of my faith life. It’s why I’m here. So my hope for the new year is that we are there for each other. Blessed be.

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