Why you should care
Because sometimes you have to look backward in order to move forward.
Living in a rapidly changing modern world often means being addicted to the future. In the push toward progress and improvement, we often fixate on the next big thing — the next technological innovation, the latest trend in footwear, coming attractions at the movies, the inevitable robot takeover of the planet — you name it. And there are many places — including (full disclosure) right here at OZY — that cater to this forward-looking curiosity and thirst for a better world that by its very nature must reside in the future. And those who do not share our oversize appetite for the future? Well, we usually write them off as Luddites, Flat Earthers and those who cling more to the past or bygone era inevitably inferior to our own.
But there is another way, a middle path between being a card-carrying futurist or an Amish cobbler, and it can be summed up in just four words: Ka mua, Ka muri, often translated as “walking backward into the future.” Ka mua, Ka muri is an age-old proverb, well-known to many Pacific Islanders, including the native Maori of New Zealand. In contrast with our modern Western focus on the future and progress, it reflects a perception of time common in many older cultures that revere tradition and recognize the role that the past plays in shaping the future.
We are all walking through life backward.
“Walking Backward Into the Future” would be a terrible political campaign slogan, even for the most conservative of candidates. There is nothing to be made great again, no yes-we-can encouragement that help is on the way, nothing about making tomorrow better than today. Indeed, it seems to imply a willful blindness to tomorrow, a willingness to turn one’s back on the future. And yet, the proverb still acknowledges movement and, even more importantly, a more realistic view of the future — of a place that we will never truly be able to see despite our rugged pursuit of it.
Whakatauki (proverbs) are important and influential in Maori culture. Maori literature is filled with them, and they still infuse both daily life and more formal occasions. Ka mua, Ka muri is just one of several proverbs showcasing the traditional — and rather beautiful way — that Maori view the interplay between past and future. A similar, but less catchy one — Kia whakatomuri te haere ki mua (“To walk into the future our eyes must be fixed on the past”) — suggests “continuous movement with no time restrictions,” says Murdoch Riley, an expert on Maori sayings and proverbs, and emphasizes that “we treasure the happenings of the past and look to the future, even though we are as yet unable to experience it.”
In other words, we are all walking through life backward. No one can see the future. Anyone who says differently, as the Man in Black says of life being painful in The Princess Bride, is probably selling something. Ka mua, Ka muri teaches us to embrace that fact and to be mindful of what we can see much more clearly: the past. The past is a much more accessible, and comprehensible, space. We can look to the past to inform how we proceed into the future, learning something from those who have gone before us. A related Maori proverb, Kia mau koe ki te kupu a tou matua (“Hold fast to the words of your parent”) also speaks to this traditional reverence for ancestral wisdom.
Such a worldview is not a license to glorify the past, nor to re-create it. Nor is it merely a backward-looking philosophy. Even if who you are today is determined by all those who came before you, so too are future generations determined by who you are today. For example, Maori culture also holds that humans are but kaitiaki (guardians) of the earth and that, as many Native American traditions also believe, we are merely borrowing the planet from our children. Life occurs along a continuum, and being able to navigate walking backward toward the future also means being able to possess an awareness that flows in both directions.