Living backwards or forwards?


‘Future Polly’s going to love past Polly…’ My daughter first said this when she was quite small.

‘What do you mean?’

It was Sunday afternoon and she led me to her room. Always tidy, with everything in its place, her bedroom was usually an oasis of organised calm, but that night there were things everywhere. She promptly explained. The bed was turned down, her pyjamas laid out ready. Big Doggie and Slightly Smaller Doggy were already curled up in their night time positions on the floor. Her school uniform was over the chair, tie already threaded beneath the shirt collar. Open on the floor, her school bag neatly yawned its contents, inserted in lesson order. Her lunchbox was ready, her shoes at the door. It was incredible.

“So later,” she explained, “When it’s bedtime and I’m tired, I’m going to tell Past Polly she’s a star!”

No wonder she’s turned out to be a cracking administrator with the ability to organise huge and complicated events. I can just about manage a monthly bible study and a church outing or two, without coming out in hives. As for putting the right messages on the right Whatsapp groups, well, shoot me now…

Some people seem to be inherently gifted in ‘living life backwards’ – planning ahead and quickly putting into place the things that will make the future smooth and ordered. Naturally spontaneous and creative, this was the aspect of teaching I first found hardest – anticipating what might go wrong or what children would find difficult so planning a way round these. But I’m a quick learner (the first twenty years were the worst).

Do you remember that film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? It’s a good one and I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it but it’s based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald. The plot is about someone who is born in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina. He is born as an elderly man. Stuffed into a small body, he ages in reverse, becoming younger and stronger and meeting the love of his life, Daisy, in difficult circumstances. The hope that they will eventually come together at the right time keeps driving Benjamin forward.

I found this idea of literally living backwards intriguing. How useful would that be: –

  • Your skin would improve with age
  • Your first few years could be dozing, reading and listening to Radio 4
  • You wouldn’t need to floss
  • You’d lose weight as a matter of course
  • Care homes would smell of talcum powder and Farley’s Rusks
  • You could go to uni purely for pleasure
  • You wouldn’t spend your last years worrying about the state of the world
  • You’d begin life wise
  • You’d get better eyes (and ears)
  • You’d end life cute and dribbly instead of cross and dribbly

It was Kierkegaard who said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This fascinates me. Here we are, wandering along, sometimes confident, sometimes confused, sometimes with toothache. Or piles. Or an irrational fear of those tiny insects that burrow into your skin and give you Lyme disease (ticks?) Not that I’m the least bit concerned by these personally. But, you know, some people are…

But we’re having to make decisions all the time on the basis of incomplete information. Should I change jobs or will things improve? Shall we move house or stay and extend? Could I commit to doing this volunteering role or that caring role or the gym membership thing? Or…

Only hindsight will tell us if we made good decisions or not. Oh to be in possession of all of the facts all of the time – but that would be living backwards. Instead, we think a lot, pray a little, and lunge. We should maybe reverse all that. Google gives the opposite of ‘lunge’ as saunter. What a lovely word. It conjures up open gates, winding paths, trees. Best of all, it’s a kind of unhurried stroll, the sort that expects and sees delight.

Maybe life, in all its glorious, heart-breaking, spirit-soaring, messy, surprising beauty, is best lived forwards: stepping hope-crazy through half-open doors, taking with you the confidence, the confusion, the toothache and piles and even the ticks. Or, for some of us, worse things. Believing what’s round the corner will be better, sunnier, more peaceful. Like a pleasing view, or a stumble of bluebells.

Some of us are searching, some waiting, for our heaven. But in the meantime, there are things we can do to impress Future Us – exercise, hydrate, wear flat shoes. Sometimes, just getting up in the morning would do it…

Future Deborah sometimes hates past Deborah

So, if you can, saunter. If you can’t, sleep (which is a bit like sauntering, lying down). But keep believing, the best is yet to be…