You’re standing in the midst of your life.
Just behind you, one to each shoulder, stand your two biological parents. Behind their shoulders stand their parents, your four grandparents. Behind them now, shoulder to shoulder, their parents – your eight great-grandparents. Sixteen in the row behind, then thirty-two just five generations back. Over a thousand in the tenth generation behind you. And on, and on, row after row after row of ancestors. The rows stretch back, beyond the beginnings of recorded human history, back through our primate ancestors, back and back and back in an unbroken chain.
Everything you are, you owe to them. Your biological heritage – brain, limbs, heart, circulation, senses, breath. Your linguistic heritage – the capacity to speak and listen, the words you use to move and describe the world, your capacity to observe and make use of your observations to create and shape. The practices that help you navigate and make sense of the world, clothing, social structures, houses, technology. Narratives that give you an identity, a place to take up in the midst of the world’s complexity. Even your capacity to reinvent yourself, to reconfigure the world in ways they would never recognise – all bequeathed to you by them.
Can you allow yourself to experience for a moment the scale of that which stretches behind you? Its beauty and its extraordinary unlikeliness?
This great chain of life lies behind every moment of ordinary, everyday human life, our hopes and our struggles, our striving for progress. It is, always, what brought us to this moment. And when we allow ourselves to live with wonder at this long, long past that brings us life, when we have eyes to see behind us as well as in front of us, who might we become? What sense of support could this give us in a bewildering, mysterious and sometimes frightening world? And could cultivating behind-ness be part of our addressing the suffering and struggles of our own lives as well as the social, economic, and environmental difficulties that we’re living in at the moment? Might it help us to live more fully in life as it is, rather than rushing away from it to the future all the time?
Photograph by Angela Marie