I’m within a few weeks of retiring as the Brand Historian of a hundred-year-old company. History is an odd duck for a lot of people—a litany of past dates and events that have seemingly little or nothing to do with their work or everyday lives.
For old companies with an established heritage, this can cause an awkward tension and seesaw battle between tradition and vision. But it’s a false narrative based on the misapprehension that time is linear and exclusive; that we move chronologically from the past into the future; and that by focusing on one temporal period we limit our ability to function in another.
In fact, time is spherical and inclusive.
If you doubt it, go walk in an old growth forest. You’ll see past, present, and future in full view. Nurse logs, soaring giants, seedlings and saplings coexist simultaneously. Each are dependent on—made possible by—the others. They’re an ecosystem, members of a community that’s both biological and temporal.
So are we.
The difference is that our ecosystem, our community is spread out over such a wide area that we don’t see all the constituent parts and their connecting links. And for those of us with eyes in the front of our head, seeing is believing. When that kind of myopia is combined with the belief that time is linear, we’re even less likely to see the living connections between past, present, and future—because we don’t expect to see them. Our concepts structure our perceptions.
So, our nurse logs are relegated to memory and myth. Our soaring giants are lionized or demonized (or both). Our seedlings and saplings are sometimes pampered, sometimes ignored and, in either case, too rarely taught to understand and appreciate being part of an interdependent whole.
Living as if time was linear and exclusive creates all sorts of problems. When the past is only everywhere we’ve been and all that used to be; when the future is only everywhere we might go and all the possibilities of what might come to be, the present becomes a fleeting moment that flashes by us virtually unnoticed in our rush to get where we’re going and our desire to leave the past behind.
It’s no wonder that being present is so difficult.
In this linear temporal world view, where we’re separate from the past because it’s past, separate from the future because it hasn’t happened yet, and barely present because the present is gone before we notice it, another phenomena takes form: We live separate lives.
Having flattened the spherical curve of forest time into a linear timeline that moves us away from the past and toward the future as if we were on a people mover, we become less likely to see or remember other elements of our community—our connections. Having severed the links between past, present, and future, we open the door to severing our ties to others.
They become “other.” Before long, they become unknown. Once unknown, they’re eyed with doubt, suspicion, fear. Once feared, they become adversary. When that happens, we’re no longer a community, we’re a conglomeration of entities fighting for survival.
The well-being of the forest community is inextricably linked to the spherical nature of forest time. Past, present, and future coexist simultaneously. They co-create the forest community. The forest thrives through time because of how it lives in time.
We could take a lesson from old growth forests and reframe our concept of time; consider the possibility that past, present, and future are with us always; explore the implications of that reality.
What might forest time mean for grief and loss, recrimination and regret, compassion and connection? What kind of community might we co-create if we started from a place not of separation but of union?