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How do you map a life?

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How do you map a life? How do you account for its achievements? 

Social media pages and the classic CV neatly answer that question by ordering the events of our personal history along a timeline. But is that the best tool for the job? 

Even though the timeline looks blandly neutral and natural to us, it has a history and a politics of its own. As Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton reveal in their wonderful graphic history Cartographies of Time, the timeline has only been around for about 250 years. It evolved in part as a tool for measuring the relative progress of nations as ‘backwards’ or ‘advanced’. You could say that the tool we now map our own life with was essentially designed for charting the competitive course of 19th-century empires. And with it, I think, comes a set of assumptions that are equally outdated.

First, the timeline pictures history as a kind of ‘cosmic conveyor belt’ (Sacha Stern) carrying us forward together in time. That gives visual punch to the idea that history is innately progressive, bringing us to better times of its own accord. But by putting too much faith in its picture, are we giving up our own power – our responsibility, even – to help shape history? When we don’t assume it has a set direction and destination, what genuinely better future do we want to help make? 

Second, as an ordered, structured container waiting to be filled, the timeline gives us an ideal impression of what life should look like. At least in CV form, it encourages the sense that our own life is lacking if it doesn’t exhibit singular direction, ceaseless productivity, uninterrupted progress. But surely it’s impossible to grow and learn without making diversions and backsteps – kinks, loops and knots in the line of progress. Without risking failure and exploring what may be dead-ends, how can we ever develop? 

Third, our lived experience of time is of course constantly in flux: a minute drags and a day goes in a flash, memory fragments can seem more vivid than the present, the perception of events differs between witnesses, and a moment can seem more important than a decade. But the timeline reduces the complexity of lived experience to a line of standard units. So how far does that promote the idea that our experiences don’t count if they’re not mappable onto that line? When assessing the worth of a life, how much does the timeline’s form lead us to value and rate only the measurable, tangible pieces: the status and accolades achieved, the material success, the length in years?

We didn’t always picture life like this. The ancient Stoic philosophers, for example, saw every individual life as a perfect circle, whether that life lasts 30 or 80 years. The notion that a life’s worth should be assessed as full or lacking by its abstract quantities would have seemed faulty to them.

And it surely is faulty. A measurement is only a shadow of the thing. If we mistake the map for the land, the score for the performance, the timeline for the life, then we reduce existence to its shadows. As the philosopher Henri Bergson warned, lived time in all its fullness can’t be measured. Doing so risks reducing a life to a machine or commodity. 

So what if we tried an experiment and mapped our life as we really experience it to be: a map without measurements? One that gives space to events according to their significance rather than their length in clock-time? 

What if we made that map just for our self and included what we would leave out of a job application – a map that includes the mazes and trapdoors along with the parades of glory and the leaps of progress? Might we value the failures and the ‘time wasted’ more then? And when we accept and value our past experience in all its fullness, how does that change our view of the future? 

Cathy Haynes is a founder faculty member of The School of Life. She is also Timekeeper in residence at UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, where she has an exhibition until Friday 2 August (www.astormisblowing.org). Cathy is leading the special event Mind Games: Alt Monopoly on Thursday 3 October. Click here for details.

Timeline images © Cathy Haynes from A Storm Is Blowing.

Posted by Cathy Haynes on 29 July 2013

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