Always Forwards

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Arcadia.

It’s a very enjoyable play with a fantastic cast (except for the young student girl who appeared to have learned to act by watching Hollyoaks) and I heartily recommend going if you get the chance.

It’s not only very funny but it’s also thought-provoking in an entertaining way that doesn’t feel at all didactic.

I only mention this because one of the recurring thoughts that swooshes around my mind on a regular basis is the question of constant progress.

Wherever you go, people want to grow their businesses, make more of themselves and move forward, as if it’s some kind of mortal sin to stay where you are or, Heaven forbid, go backwards.

Richard Dawkins is particularly fond of this idea, suggesting that tradition is the enemy of progress.

However, during Arcadia, there’s an interesting point made by the girl who can’t act. She says that we can stir jam into porridge but we can never un-stir that jam by moving our spoon in the exact opposite direction.

She wants to know why and (spoiler alert) finds that the answer lies in the fact that all actions involve a displacement of heat that is impossible to return to the action, thus making it something that cannot happen in reverse.

In between considering this and, since, leaving rude messages about the crappy actress girl on one of her fansites (she’s got a minor role in the Harry Potter films, so let’s just say 12-year-old girls get very defensive when you trash her), I finally realised why progress is a human imperative:

We can never go back. We can’t unlearn things and we can’t deliberately learn less about something we already know about.

Forwards is the only way we can move and, like sharks, we do it or we die.

I found this simultaneously heartening and frustrating. Sometimes it’s nice to know that something is inescapable: it means you don’t have to worry about trying to escape it. But then, what if you want to keep things as they are? Well, you can’t. You’re always moving forwards, whether you’re getting better at rolling spliffs and playing GTA4, or you’re persuading people to come and look after a beautiful island.

So now I’m going to embrace forwards and I thank Tom Stoppard for helping me to be OK with that.