Southern Seen- Changing the leopard’s spots
By: Larry McGehee
One of the household gods of the polytheistic Romans was Janus, a two-faced God whose image hung over doorways, looking both backward and forward. January, the first month, got its name from Janus, because it was a time for looking back over the year just completed and the one that lay ahead.
The Old Testament Jehovah of our own Judeo-Christian monotheism also has this Janus-like quality. That lovely Psalm 121, which begins with “I lift up myeyes unto the hills,” closes with “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” God (or gods) see both Past and Future. Hindsight and foresight are signs of divinity.
While we humans are far from being divinities ourselves, perhaps as creations-or children-of God, we possess that insight ability, too-especially in the betwixt and between moment on New Year’s Eve night when chimes are tolling twelve. We look behind even as we look ahead.
What saved Ebenezer Scrooge from himself, in the long run, was the Christmas gift, late in life, to see what was left behind and what lay ahead.
Looking behind is not difficult at all. “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,” Omar Khayyam tells us. What is past is past; it is history; we can revisit and review it, but (short of lying to ourselves about it) we cannot really change it.
Seeing into the future is a bit harder. We can “project” and list “possible scenarios” and make “straight-line projections,” but seldom consider all the “variables”. But, as Scrooge happily discovered, we can indeed “change the future”. We can shape it, we can influence it. It can also be changed by unforeseen circumstances we have not counted on: hurricanes, droughts, wars, terrorists, maladies, accidents, elections, and education among them. And we can change it by changing ourselves.
How clearly we see the past and learn from it, and how clearly we see the future and act to change it depends to large measure upon how keen our vision is-our hindsight and our foresight.
If we believe that we cannot matter, as millions of complacent and passive people in under-developed countries have grown accustomed to believing, then we will succumb to the predestinarian practice of “going with the flow” and determinist doctrine of “whatever is, is”.
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” asked Jeremiah. Maybe not, but some other changes are both possible and desired.
In the very next verse, Jeremiah, the prophet who looked behind and ahead, said, “You can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”
People can improve; human beings can better the human condition.
We can look backward, all the way to the age of the dinosaurs, and trace our consumption of fossil fuels and our explosion in population and fuel-consumers; and we can see the looming energy crisis that we must change.
We can look backward, all the way to the misery and death of the first year of the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and trace the growth of free enterprise and commercial dynamism and the pockets of people it has yet to reach; and we can see the chasm between rich and poor that we must act to bridge.
We can look backward, all the way to the pamphleteering in 1796 for the two new parties headed by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and trace the evolution of political parties; and we can see the need ahead for rising above them to bipartisanism in our public life.
We can look backward, all the way to the Black Death of the 1300s, and chart the ebb and flow of epidemics across whole civilizations; and we can see the urgency for AIDS research and remedies.
We can look backward, too, into the charity wards and emergency rooms of our great hospitals, and count the annually rising numbers of citizens without health plans or insurance (now 42 million of us); and we can see that attention ahead must be given to medical care delivery systems.
We can look backward, only to the first year of this century, and see a balanced federal budget and a growing budget surplus, and ponder where they went in “seven lean years” rivaling those Moses predicted in Egypt; and we can decide what ahead to change to get “seven fat years.”
Therefore, brothers and sisters, open your eyes, your minds, your pocketbooks, and your doors to the resolutions we must make together for this New Year-and resolve, this year especially, to keep those resolutions.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Published in The Messenger 12.24.07