If you tell a story about yourself for a long enough time, you start to believe it. That’s when you’re in trouble.
I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and went to jail for it. That sentence may conjure up inflammatory images in your mind: mass demonstrations of bearded, long-haired 1970s radicals; smoke from burned draft cards wafting upward to the sky; men and women thrusting V-shaped fingers high into the air. But these cultural tokens obscure the truth, namely, that I was a young man who believed in alternative public service and wanted no part in the U.S. military action in Southeast Asia. Little did I know that in later years I would come to let my wartime decision define me—hinder me—and that one day I would need to move past it.
For a long while after Vietnam, I wore my past civil disobedience as a badge of honor in the largely liberal circles in which I moved. When I volunteered information about my experiences as a draft defier, I was in a sense saying to people, “Look what I did. See how hip and fearless and full of conviction I was?” And I bought into the story too: I saw myself as Scott, the American idealist who had refused to fight an unjust war and had gone to jail in the name of peace.
Good sense and self-awareness kicked in eventually. I found myself in the New York City office of Lincoln Center Institute, where I serve as Executive Director of one of the world’s leading arts-in-education organizations. I peered out my seventh-floor window onto 65th Street one morning and asked, “Am I still ‘the conscientious objector’? Is that the essence of me? Is that identity really relevant to where I am today, to my work of developing children’s minds through the arts?” The answer came as cold and hard as the skyscrapers in the distance: “No.” The problem wasn’t that I regretted my past or that I no longer believed in living by a moral code or that I’d suddenly revised my politics; rather, it was that my conception of myself was outdated, that—given my position as an arts-in-education advocate at the turn of the millennium—it no longer offered me anything.
The process I’ve just described is the first step of a practice that Eric Liu and I call “renewing your narrative” in our book, Imagination First. As human beings, we all construct narratives about ourselves; we do so naturally and involuntarily. Some of these empower us and push us to excel, but “[f]ew things impede the flow of imagination like dead narratives—narratives that block our ability to grow, that have outlived their usefulness but accrete and calcify” (87). Once we realize that we’re stagnating under the thumb of such a narrative, as I did with regard to my protest history, the next step is to remodel: “a new mindset is in order” (87). Imagine the person you’d love to be, the work you’d love to do, and build a fresh narrative on that foundation—then live it.
Decades ago, I felt that there weren’t enough public service options—beyond the military—open to young Americans. This strong belief led me into the whirlwind of political dissent of the early 1970s. That era echoed in my mind for some time, until finally I was able to hear my own voice again. It told me that I am not a revolutionary, but an evolutionary thinker, one who works to effect change and impact lives from within “the system.” And now that we at last live in a country brimming with possibilities for public service, I am delighted to be out of the fray and serving the U.S. the best way I know how: by overseeing the intellectual and emotional growth of our young people through our multifaceted work at LCI.
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