Brad Olson: To make an end is to make a beginning

By Bradley Olson, Meteor Columnist

The new year and New Year’s celebrations are traditionally the time set aside for reflecting on the year just past, and setting goals and making resolutions for the year to come. It is a curious psychic position in which to find oneself, not quite out of the old year, yet not fully engaged in the new, inhabiting a liminal space which leaves one betwixt and between, attempting to resolve the conflict between past memories and future ambition.

This year, as in others, my family watched the New Year’s Eve celebrations from around the world. Sydney’s fireworks display and beautiful skyline never seem to disappoint. London focused its Eye on the New Year celebration. Beijing’s celebration was reliably surreal and often, to a Westerner’s eyes at least, unintentionally comical as it tried to project the image of an ethnically diverse nation (which it is) open to individual expression and hep to contemporary Western Culture (which it is not—but then, I just used the word “hep,” so you’ll have to decide for yourself.). But watching the event—I can’t rightly call it a celebration—in Hong Kong, one of my favorite cities, was an eerily foreboding, and sad experience. The fireworks display over Victoria Harbour was cancelled due to concerns about the ongoing protests in the city, and the laser light show and the accompanying music that replaced it seemed to me ominous and dirge-like. The laser show had a Star Wars feeling to it, as though it were produced by the Palpatine Empire, and seemed to carry a thinly veiled warning to protestors, who were raising their hands and spreading their five fingers to denote their “five demands, not one less” for which they are risking their careers, their safety, their freedom, perhaps even their very lives. 

These incongruities in the celebrations left a gap, a hole, a kind of lacuna in that big pieces of the story were missing. Instability, be it environmental, political, or social, places one in a gap, in a psychological situation of uncertainty, or a feeling of being “betwixt and between.” The Australian fires seem unquenchable, Brexit is ongoing, and it’s hard to imagine Beijing won’t forcefully intervene in Hong Kong eventually. Perceived gaps or holes reveal a lack of structure and predictability, an inability to know anything. The gap of unknowing creates a psychological situation Homo sapiens has a hard time tolerating. Homo or hominis means human being; sapiens means wise, discerning, knowing. Our species is defined by knowing, by developing expectations and methods of prediction which, when finding ourselves in a gap, or realizing that we are enshrouded by the fog of ignorance, is constitutionally abhorrent to us. Gaps and holes are generally associated with emptiness, with something missing, and unless one is very wise or has practiced seeing and thinking through the manifest appearance of “things,” we fail to see how abundantly rich, how teeming with life and possibility, how present with something is the nothingness, how filled with divinity are the gaps. In antiquity, chaos defined the nature of the gods much as chaos defines the nature of emptiness and gaps, and it’s readily apparent that the emptiness is not nothingness, it is a teeming surfeit of potential and possibility. 

The month of January was named for Janus, who was the unique (he had no Greek precedent), ancient (some scholars find a relationship to Romulus, the founder of Rome), and the essential Roman god whose numerous and elaborate rituals acknowledged his influence over thresholds, transitions, endings and beginnings, gateways, passages, and time. His two-faced image was what one first saw upon entering the most significant gate into the Eternal City. The gate called the Ianiculum displayed the old face of Janus looking into the past—into the void from which all life arises, even—while his young face is turned to the future and possibility, as well as toward that same void to which we inevitably return. One might think of his domain as eternity itself, replete with births and deaths, beginnings and endings, and all varieties of psychosociomorphic possibilities. In fact, Janus is the god of the gap, monopolizing the liminal space and offering a way of understanding our relationships to the no-things of life that are the antitheses of nothing.

The singular image of Janus has transformed over time and cultures and has become, in American life, the image of aged Father Time ceding the stage to the infant New Year. In America we celebrate the New Year by dropping a ball amid a million people in Times Square, or a giant Pinecone amid thousands at Leroux and Aspen Streets. As a mythologist, it seems proper that the new year begins with a drop or a fall. So often we associate dropping something or falling as a failure. A failure of skill, clumsiness or carelessness, even a failure of ambition—we have reached too far, flown too high, exceeded our capacities somehow. But falling isn’t a mistake or a crime, it’s one of the ways that life begins. The Ponderosa Pines we all love propagate by dropping pinecones to the ground where new life then takes root. Even its name, Ponderosa, is a Latin word that conveys a sense of the great weight or heaviness of these trees, and the more subtle knowledge that eventually, heavy things tend to fall. 

Falling into the gap, finding oneself in liminal space, is often an opportunity and not ruin. It’s an immersion in the generative, cyclic nature of existence and not a death at all. It is a felix culpa; it is, if we can find the courage to so view it, a very fortunate fall. 

Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Depth Psychologist in private practice. Dr. Olson is also a mythologist and works for the Joseph Campbell Foundation as the editor of the MythBlast series. Brad writes a monthly column for the Meteor.

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