Backing into the Future: The Simple Reason Ancient Greeks Valued the Present More Than Us

By Ethan Maurice | February 22, 2016

Nearly all modern cultures assume that the future lies in front of us and the past lies behind us. From this prospective, we're constantly moving forward into the future. However, the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians thought of time in the opposite way—that we back into the future and face the past.

It's a subtle difference, but I think it's implications are of immense importance.

The reason we assume we face the future is obvious—because we're moving towards it. Like walking, driving, or any other form of movement, we face the direction we're going.

Yet this concept applied to time doesn't work. Why do we face the direction we're going when we move? We face the direction we're going to perceive what's ahead, plot our next steps, and navigate what's coming. However, time doesn't work this way. We can't look ahead in time obviously—we can't perceive the future.

This is where the Ancient Greek's idea of backing into the future makes a lot more sense. They thought we were facing the past because we can perceive the past, while we backed into the unperceivable future.

Makes sense right? Changing this most basic assumption about time has fascinating implications.

In our modern society, we have a chronic obsession with the future. We're always a bit dissatisfied and we constantly desire for something more. We're invested in the idea of our future selves. We think more about where we're going than where we actually are. We freely put important things off for someday. We have trouble focusing on the present. Our culture of consumerism is based on wanting what we don't have, getting it, becoming dissatisfied, and striving for our next future purchase.

But, what if we believed the future was unknowable and that we backed towards it? What if we recognized the mystery and constant stream of unknown that flows from the future into the present as we face the past? It makes the present seem much more exciting, doesn't it?

Backing into the future could be the antidote to our obsession with the future and lack of appreciation for the present.

Instead of grinding for retirement, we might recognize that as a massive gamble. We might demand a standard vacation time of greater than two weeks per year in the United States. Using the word “someday” dreamily to put off our ambitions would carry an underlying knowledge of risk that someday might never come. The concept of living for the future might seem a bit crazy. We might recognize greater value in the present, which would naturally cause us to spend our time in more worthwhile ways.

Essentially, backing into the future would curb our overconfidence that we can so perfectly plan and mold the unknown time ahead of us. Without overconfidence in the future we're backing into, we'd be more inclined to live in the present.

For other reasons, I've actually tested and lived under this assumption for a while. At sixteen, a bite from the wrong mosquito almost killed me and left me with significant brain damage. I've fully recovered, but it changed me. After a bite from a bug a thousand times smaller than me nearly ended my life, betting on living into old age seemed like an unreasonable gamble, just as it probably did to the Ancient Greeks.

As a result, I've lived quite an interesting, purposeful life since. 

I think everyone else would too, if they only knew they were backing into the future.




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