The Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, had two faces. One looked forward to the future, the other, backward to the past. The two-faced symbolism is fitting, for after our collective birthday on Dec. 31, we are temporarily caught in a time warp, looking in both directions. Often there is a momentary confusion when we write the new date but none about the heroic resolutions we made for the coming year. Matters sort out after a few days. By now we remember the numbers but have forgotten the resolutions and keep doing in the new year the same things we did in the old one.

The older we get the briefer our years seem to be. In childhood, Christmas, birthdays, and the new year creep in with geological slowness. Later, like autumn days, the intervals grow ever shorter. We barely say goodbye to one holiday before the next appears. Age is not a matter of adding years but of losing them.

Did earlier generations have the same impressions of time? Ancient texts tell of people “old and full of days,” which gives an impression of lives saturated with time. Seldom do we sense the same temporal fullness in modern people. Regardless of how long people live today, it seems that hardly anyone lives long enough. For though the years may be many, the sum of life seems insufficiently short. What accounts for the different perspectives? Two contrasting possibilities occur to me: 1. We do too much; and 2. We do too little. But these are flip sides of the same coin.

Our time comes in daily doles. We have no other. Each day is a miniature lifetime and our quotidian stories form the anthology of our life. We talk, work, eat, sleep, visit, play and think one day at a time. And there is no time like today, for each day is an only day and once squandered never repeated. Fulfillment occurs not by surfeiting life with all the countless things and people we could but concentrating on those that count. This daily fulfillment slows, expands and enriches time, filling it with lasting significance and memory and letting us live and relive it time and again. These are the activities and people that give meaning to empty time, not the agendas imposed on us by other people. The courage of authentic life is the firm determination to say ‘no’ to things both good and bad but not for us.

The modern mantra is that the most alluring things lie over the rainbow and that we must sample them all to have a fulfilling life. But we learn that happiness is not a bucket list. Janus and many of us are obsessed with the past and the future. But isn’t our best chance for fulfillment an investment here and now in the people and projects that pay the richest dividends, as Dorothy said in the “Wizard of Oz,” “right in my own backyard?”

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email

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