This Fascinating Maori Belief Says We're All 'Walking Backward Into the Future'

It's common to hear the expression 'don't ever look back,' but maybe we're missing out when we only focus on the future. (Photo: Standret/Shutterstock)

There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of my grandma. She raised me, so while that saying is a bit of a cliché, it's also true. She appears in my mind's eye most often in the context of advice she gave me when I had a question about my life. Born 100 years ago this year, her decades of experience were something I valued tremendously growing up and still refer to on a regular basis.

I think there are many people like myself who spend time looking back at their own lives, as well as the lives of their elders, and take that knowledge and experience seriously.

But popular culture generally seems to look down upon referencing the past, except in isolated cases (holiday traditions or recipes, for example). But as the philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana famously wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I think that's very true, and it's why I appreciate the idea of Ka mua, Ka muri, an idea that's well-known among Pacific Islanders including the Maori, the native people of New Zealand.

It translates to "walking backward into the future." It isn't about living in the past, or trying to "go back" to a particular time, but is more concerned with integrating the past with what's to come. It's about how "we treasure the happenings of the past and look to the future, even though we are as yet unable to experience it," Murdoch Riley, an expert on Maori sayings and proverbs, told Ozy.

Building on generations of work

I hadn't heard of this expression until recently, but it resonates. If I envision my life like a long and winding path over a landscape riddled with deep valleys, mountaintops, quiet meadows, muddy swamps, streams to ford, and cozy overhangs to sleep beneath, then looking back over what I've experienced empowers and informs me — even as I am steadily moving into the future.

In a generational perspective, Ka mua, Ka muri reminds me that what I have is built on what previous generations have provided — both positive and negative. So I vote, for example, and I remember that just 100 years ago women couldn't — and many fought hard and alienated their families and got called names to ensure that I can do so today. In that way I don't take for granted what happens in my lifetime, or forget that future change is dependent on my work today.

This isn't the only Maori proverb that takes a more nuanced view of the past and the present than current culture does. 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 Riley.

The words are a powerful reminder that we all live on a continuum of time. We can either embrace that or not — to our peril.