Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Living Backward

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.--Marshall McLuhan

I understand that, in the time of Abraham, the "direction" of time was conceived in a different metaphor from ours today. We think of time as an "arrow," and as going "forward" away from us, into the future.

But in Abraham's time, I'm told, the future was behind you. It couldn't be seen, even if you turned to look for it. And the past was in front of you, because it is what was known. You couldn't turn away from it, because you always knew what it was.

Now, the weakness in this is obvious: fear of the future, and comfort in the past. It is what keeps societies static, or locked into class hierarchies, keeps women and children tamped down as secondary to the patriarchy, because "We have always done it this way" (except much intriguing evidence, from the Bible itself as well as other sources, indicates that is anything but true). Still, the weakness in the other approach is only now becoming apparent.

If the future is before you, waiting just beyond the end of your nose, beckoning like a siren to Ulysses, then the past is what you have (rightly) abandoned, and should move away from as quickly as possible. Except the past clings to your back, insists on being taken along, is not so much discarded as disregarded, and that kind of ignorance only brings misery, not bliss.

Institutions, for example, function like humans. They have a "genetic" heritage, and they live it what they were born with, just as humans do. Odd, isn't it, since institutions are the product of human effort. Surely they are amenable to reason? Not so, of course, any more than humans are. Institutions live out their past into their future, and carry with them always, because of that, the seeds of their own destruction. Our cells, biologists now say, tick away to death; so, too, do the instutions we create. But looking only to the future, thinking only what is in front of us is real, that we have "passed through" what we have left behind, discarded it as a snake its skin, we have trouble seeing that. And so we make the same mistakes again and again, and are surprised again when our institutions let us down, fail to live up to their creeds and credos, their highest and best ideals, fail to be the shining city on a hill that we are so convinced can be, or has been, built somewhere, if we could just find it, or just return (in time or space) to it.

If the past is before you, you don't make this mistake. You know the limits and the possibilities and the potentials like the back of your hand. If the future is before you, you start to imagine that paradise lies just beyond the next valley, that El Dorado is just over the next rise. Both views have their advantages; but both views have their vulnerabilities, too.

Is it possible to achieve a reconciliation?

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