Delmore Schwartz wrote “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” in 1937 when he was only 23. Though he wrote for the rest of his turbulent life, he was plagued by alcoholism and mental illness and unable to match his early success. As a result of alcohol and drug abuse, he died alone and mostly forgotten in 1966. In the story, a young boy is in the cinema watching a movie of his parents’ courtship. As the awkward young man on the big screen makes his stumbling proposal to the young girl, the narrator rises from his seat and, in distress, shouts out: ‘Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.”
Ok, for the start of a musing, that was a little dark, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the things that happen in our lives impact the way we see our own futures. For Schwartz, it is apparent that the divorce of his father and mother deeply altered the way he viewed marriage and relationships, but for some reason, he was unable to make a correction in his own life. Bono was influenced by Schwartz when he wrote “Acrobat”. (If you don’t listen to U2, you should, a lot.) Talking about this period in his career, Bono said, “I stopped throwing rocks at the obvious symbols of power and the abuse of it. I started throwing rocks at my own hypocrisy.”
So much of what I see around me is analogous to Schwartz’s narrator standing up in a theatre and shouting for the actors on the screen to stop. The movie of the past cannot be changed. Like Bono, much of my rebellion was an effort to avoid the responsibility of holding myself accountable for my own hypocrisy. What is needed, first in my life and then in the greater community, is the courage to be the first to change. I need to acknowledge the reality of past failure and all it carries into the present. I need to be eager to stop watching old movies and start making new ones.
Leaders carry an extra burden in this respect. Our beliefs have significant influence on the organizational beliefs of our communities. The culture we experience is an organic result of those organizational beliefs. Our ability (or inability) to shed things from the past that create hypocrisy and bias in our present directly influences many people’s future. I confess this is what keeps me up at night (that’s a euphemism, I sleep like a baby). I am terrifyingly aware of the impact my “dreams” have on other people.
It is not my responsibility as a leader to be perfect, which is great because that is impossible. It is my responsibility to be making progress. Making progress toward mental and emotional health and self-awareness. Making progress toward unbiased and non-judgmental views of people. Making progress toward loving others equally and without reservation. Making progress toward accepting and embracing the responsibility that comes with my dreams.
I cannot change my past. I cannot erase the trauma I experienced (and caused). I cannot unhear the words that broke my spirit (or take back the stones I hurled at others). I cannot unsee the events that scarred my emotional vision (or remove the scars I inflicted on others). I cannot get back what I lost (or return what I stole). That’s all the old movie.
I can choose to accept responsibility for my future. I can give trauma its place (respected but not front and center). I can forgive (which is not the same as forgetting). I can learn to see beauty even with my imperfect vision (beauty is everywhere). I can find new things to fill my life (hint: experiences, not stuff). In doing so, I create a different movie.
By accepting responsibility for myself (and my impact on others), I can realize my dreams and help other people realize theirs. That’s leadership. Each of us can only live our best life if we are actively helping the people around us live theirs. It’s time to turn off the old movies and get busy making new ones because that is healthy, and it is the Kimray Way.