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Janus
       The name of this month is derived from Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates and transitions. Janus has two faces on his head, enabling him to see both sides of an issue. He takes a middle ground between extremes, such as life and death, war and peace, men and women or youth and old age. With his two faces, he can also look back and forward, seeing the past and the future.
       This gives a good perspective in these trying times. The choices we make greatly influence our future. In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge is given the opportunity to view his past and thereby changes the path he follows. This is a good issue to consider in these trying times, as we are now offered a chance to address the pandemic problem that has plagued the past year. We need to pause and contemplate what path we now choose to take.
       Our perspectives are strongly influenced by our home environment, our upbringing and the what we hear in the media, which varies so much from a generation ago. (I find the concept of “fake news” unsettling.) As George F. Will said in the Hartford Courant on June 23, 2005: “The problem with American education is not public parsimony, it is the habits and values prevailing in private – in American households….And the schools reflect the families from which their pupils come – the amount of reading material in the homes, the amount of homework done, the hours spent watching television.” Or, as Ed Hatrick said, “education is a reflection of the life around us.” This greatly influences our contemplations.
       In selecting which path we choose to follow in this new year, we must consider the alternatives. As Jean-Paul Sartre said in Existentialism and Human Emotion, “…choice is possible, but what is not possible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I ought to know that if I do not choose, I am still choosing.” Similarly, Ivan Illich noted: “Education is not teaching; it is learning. Education is having the tools made available to you to learn in whatever way you wish, and it is being motivated to learn by having presented to you the wonderful world of possibilities.” In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman pointed out “…an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that – why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”
       The pandemic has made health a central issue that needs serious attention. In his 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush stated how the “Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth. These responsibilities are the proper concern of the Government, for they vitally affect our health, our jobs, and our national security.” Harry S. Truman responded “We should resolve now that the health of this nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the nation.” Winston Churchill said “Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”
       Even so, this still is yet to be appropriately addressed. As Paul Farmer responded, “I’ve been asked a lot for my view on American health care. Well, ‘it would be a good idea,’ to quote Gandhi.” Looking in the current issue of Discover Magazine (January/February 2021), Nancy Averett addressed the topic in Killer Pollution: “These studies—looking at both human-caused and natural sources of particle pollution—are part of the growing body of evidence that air pollution is widespread and can affect people’s health even at low levels.”
       A broader major concern is environmental issues, such as pollution and climate change. Decades ago, I met James Hansen, Head of NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, who had done work with my father and was one of the first to come out vocally on global warming. As he said: “Today’s generations will be accountable, and how tall we stand remains to be determined. There is still time, but just barely.” In Black Holes and Baby Universes, Stephen Hawking stated: “The danger is that our power to damage or destroy the environment or one another is increasing much more rapidly than our wisdom in using this power.”
       These issues are repeatedly spread in the media in ever-increasing threatening tones. I like L.G. Heller’s perspective that “Ecology is the science which warns people who won’t listen about ways they won’t follow of saving an environment they don’t appreciate.” In The Eternal Quest, Alexander B. Adams said it slightly differently in 1969: “Not being a normal being, [man] was not bound by normal rules. But this excuse no longer exists, and he knows, or at least he should know, that he has a responsibility toward all other life and toward the environment that has made his existence possible. It is this responsibility that…man is ignoring.” A major factor in this problem was identified by Robert Swan, who said “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
       Another critical issue is the skewed distribution of wealth in our economy. Many people are concerned with the total wealth, but how it is measured is, in itself, questionable. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Almost a century ago, Will Rogers commented that “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” However, more seriously, I agree with the statement Thomas Paine made in 1796: “I care not how affluent some may be provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.”
       A final major issue that should be considered at this time is the lack of true equality from many perspectives in our society. As Whitney M. Young, Jr., stated in Racism in White America in 1970 “…Racism…is the assumption of superiority and the arrogance that goes with it. It also takes another, equally condescending form: putting up with outrageous behavior from a black man simply because he is black….a subtle kind of racism…for their implicit assumption was that the blacks had to be humored and pacified; that no outrage was too great not to be accepted from the poor, oppressed blacks.” Looking from the other perspective, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi noted in How to Be an Antiracist: “I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions, and I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says the racial groups are equal.” And Rev. John Crocker, whom I knew personally, wrote the following in an article in Technology Review in 1976: “I believe that justice, freedom, and love are not just relative matters of opinion – but are objective relatives, under which we stand and to which we are accountable….The best we can do in society is to keep striving to approximate justice, equity, and freedom. For this reason, society needs continually to be reformed.”
       I would like to close with two final quotes. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In The Dragon on the Border, Gordon R. Dickson’s character said “You are over-concerned with time, and the possible lack of it. It is much better not to worry about such things….If what we look for tomorrow comes not to pass, then something else will. We only have this one lifetime and it will wend its way as it chooses.”
      
      
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