Facing Forward, Facing Backward

By Melvin D. Epp, Ph.D.

Did you ever ponder the origin of the name of the first month of the year, January? I, also, never really gave it much thought until the Rev. Scott Martin proposed this question in a sermon at the Whitewater Federated Church.

In 1920, the average lifespan of an American was 60 years. Today, our life expectancy is about 78.

January was named after the Roman god, Janus. Now, Janus has a very unusual profile. You see, Janus has two faces, with one face looking forward and the other face looking backward. For the Romans, Janus was the god of beginnings and endings. It seems so appropriate for us to do like the ancient Romans who offered resolutions to Janus and to use January as a month to either make new resolutions or to evaluate the resolutions we made last year.

According to John Norcross, a psychology professor, University of Scranton, who has been studying resolution habits for 20 years, only about 40-45% of the adult population makes resolutions. This is down from 50-55% 20 years ago.

While not everyone makes New Year’s resolutions, the vast majority of people do want to make positive changes in their lives at various points throughout the year. Also, from John Norcross’ studies, well over 90% of people say that they have tried to change a specific behavior over the past year.

It simply may be semantics, but most of us prefer the term goals rather than resolutions. Resolutions connote something heavy, usually quickly conceived and as quickly broken. Goals are on going and can be activated and achieved throughout the year.

Those of you who are basketball fans might remember Jim Valvano. He was the exuberant coach of the North Carolina State University’s 1983 NCAA Basketball National Champion team. He was known for his up-front, cards-on-the-table attitude. He ended up quitting coaching when he was caught up in a recruiting violations problem.

One might have thought that he would have sought out a low profile job after this. He did not. He ended up in a high visibility television job with ABC and ESPN as a commentator. He was only in that job a few years when he learned that he had a particularly virulent, fast-spreading form of cancer. Again, he did not simply fade into the background. Instead, he chose to stay on the air. He kept on working through hair loss, radiation therapy, bad days, and good days.

Just before he died he was given the Arthur Ashe award for courage. In his acceptance speech, Valvano spoke about how dying of cancer had taught him how to live: “We should do this every day of our lives: Number one is, laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is, think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears. If you laugh, you think, you cry, that’s a full day.”

In 1920, the average lifespan of an American was 60 years. Today, our life expectancy is about 78. What’s more, we have learned that genes account for about a third of the problems associated with aging. The other two-thirds involve our lifestyle choices, including our eating and exercise habits and how we handle stress.

According to the U. S. Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, 75% of cardiovascular disease, 60% of women’s cancers, and 40% of men’s cancers are related to nutrition and diet. Many deaths can be avoided if people take care of their health.

There are two worthwhile goals you can take in the direction of living longer: 1.) Find a physician for ongoing health risk assessments and checkups. Your doctor can help identify and give you advice on reducing your personal health risks. 2.) Work on your habits.

To a large extent, health is determined by how you live. Lester Breslow, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, has said that, “The daily habits of a man have a lot more to do with what makes him sick and when he dies than all of the influence of medicine.” Think of your habits as investments in your health, like a bank account.

If you want to enjoy a good “health retirement,” resolve year-round to invest all along with good habits: exercising regularly, not smoking, keeping weight under control, monitoring nutrition, and not drinking to excess. These goals are important investments in your long-term health account as you look forward. Don’t wait until you need to look backward with regrets.