Time and Family Trees

We tend to view time as stretching before us into infinity and ourselves as moving forwards in the direction of the future, leaving the past behind us.

All our habits of speech and metaphor reinforce this point of view.

The ancient Greeks saw time quite differently — they saw themselves as standing still in space and time while the river of time flowed ceaselessly past them from behind. It sounds irrational to us to have the future behind us and the past before our eyes, but it makes sense when you examine it.

We cannot see the future, just as we can’t see what is behind us: we can see the present and remember the past, just as we can see what is in front of us. The farther away the event in space or time the more difficult it is for us to see or to recall to our memory.

In the same way, our view of our family histories is curiously inverted. And this time our metaphors, habits of speech and the graphic illustrations we use are not in harmony. We speak of being "descended" from a given ancestor and what we call our family trees do indeed show this by progressively growing down the page.

But trees, or at least the visible parts of them, grow up not down. And we speak of our family origins as being our "roots", with the "branches" of the family being the various lines of descent. A curious tree indeed.

Perhaps, family trees should be drawn the other way up, showing our roots in our distant past, with the trunk of the tree being the present adult family, the people from whose point of view the history is being written, and the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren being the branches, twigs and leaves.

For they are the fresh growth; the future of our family and our nation.