Going to the past to move into the future

Looking back can be a deeply creative experience -- grounding us, reinvigorating us, inspiring us.

TED Talks are usually about energetic people working on cutting-edge projects that are going to change the world, says New York Times columnist David Brooks. Audiences usually get fired up and motivated to lead the charge. But at this year’s TED Conference in Vancouver, rock star Sting brought a different sensibility to his talk. He talked about a time when he had to look back in order to move forward.

Sting was describing a time in his own middle age when his stardom ground to a halt and he was unable to find the inspiration to write more songs. So he began to reflect on his childhood in the north of England, and how he used to go down his street to the shipyard to watch the gigantic ocean liners being constructed.

Out of these memories, he regained his creative muse and went on to compose several songs about the shipyard and his desire to leave that life. His musical “The Last Ship” was born out of that time of mid-life crisis and will come to Broadway in the fall.

Reflecting on Sting’s experience, Brooks argues that historical consciousness is richer than future vision. “When we think about the future,” Brooks writes, “we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts -- the dents in the floorboards.”

Future imagination cannot match this specificity. So going home, going back, can be a deeply creative experience, even, as is the case for Sting, when the memories are not necessarily positive. “The events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them,” Brooks writes. “The person going back home has to invent a coherent tradition out of discrete moments and tease out future implications.”

This sounds much like what we, at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, call “traditioned innovation,” a biblical way of leading that integrates the transformative work of Christ into our ongoing identity as the people of God rooted in biblical Israel’s calling. Traditioned innovation honors the past and the future, without placing them in opposition.

What is the going back you may have to do to be inspired to lead the way forward? Are there foundational concepts you need to reaffirm for the future or build on in a new way? In what historical consciousness does the future need to be grounded? Brooks concludes, “History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.”

This kind of change makes sense for Christian institutions, whose foundation is Christ, even when there is a past with which we may need to be reckoning.