It so happens that the light is shining on this moment, here and now, and the idea of whakapapa helps us shine the light more broadly, so we can see everyone throughout the landscape of time. It allows us to recognise that the living, the dead and the unborn are all here in the room with us. And we need to respect their interests as much as our own. Making this imaginative leap is challenging, especially for those of us immersed in a highly individualistic Western consumer culture.
But we can begin to do so with help from another thought experiment that involves journeying through time. Think of a child you know and care about – perhaps a godchild, a niece, or one of your own children or grandchildren. Now imagine them at their 90th birthday party, surrounded by family and friends. Picture their aged face, look at what is happening in the world outside the window. And now imagine someone comes over and places a tiny baby into their arms: it’s their first great-grandchild. They look into the baby’s eyes and ask themselves, “What would this child need to survive and thrive into the years and decades ahead?”
Sit with that thought for a moment. Then recognise that this tiny baby could be alive well into the 22nd Century. Their future isn’t science fiction. It’s an intimate family fact, just a couple of steps away from your own life. If we care about that baby’s life, we need to care about all life: all the people it will need for support; the air it will breathe; the whole web of life.
This kind of thought experiment can help us transcend the limits of our own lifespan and get in touch with the wisdom of whakapapa. We are all part of the great chain of life. And by recognising our place in it, we start extending our sense of what constitutes ‘the now’, shifting from a now of seconds and minutes and hours to a longer now of decades, centuries and even millennia. A now that gives us a sense of responsibility for the legacies we leave for the generations of tomorrow, while respecting the generations of the past.