Well, I didn’t, not for a long time.
As a young man, I was pretty sure what made my life meaningful. It was adventure, not service, and the bigger and the riskier the better.
I went to sea in a cargo ship when I was seventeen. This was, mind you, way before container ships. Cargo vessels had crews of 50 or 60 really tough seamen, all of whom were determined to teach me lessons they knew I would never get in school.
And sure enough, roaming around the Far East as a 17-year-old opened me to a huge vision of a wider world, pulsing with energy, colors and excitement. I wanted more.
I spent the summer after my sophomore year in college hitchhiking in Europe and North Africa. I walked into Algeria just one week after ceasefire had supposedly ended a brutal colonial war there. The situation was very fragile. At least I had the sense to pin a US flag on my shirt. Its intended message was: “Don’t shoot me, I’m not French.” Rebel patrols stopped cars going in my direction and told the drivers to take me where I wanted to go.
The next summer, 1963, I was part of a team that made the first direct ascent of the North Wall of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America—a climb so dangerous nobody’s done it since.
I kept upping the ante.
After college, I hitchhiked around the world.
I had a Press Pass from the Boston Globe newspaper and I used it to see and write about wars in Cyprus, Eritrea, Laos and Vietnam.
So by age 22, I’d gained the following perspective on life: This was my narrative at that time:
1) There is a huge wonderful, exciting world out there.
2) Nothing mattered but physical adventure, the bigger and riskier the better.
3) I was indestructible. None of my adventures would ever do me in.
To say that this narrative was shallow would be generous.
But I gained a lesson from those early experiences I’ve lived by ever since.
That lesson is that a full life invites passionate involvement, and that means sometimes taking risks.
But this lesson needed to be tempered with another lesson, one I didn’t get until much later.
This second lesson was this:
What’s important is not the risks.
What’s important is knowing what to take risks for.
The most significant risks often challenge not the body but the soul.
They’re about finding what makes our lives truly meaningful and then going for it with everything we have.
As I said, this second lesson was lost on me as a young man. The risks I took then were all physical. I did what I did because of the adrenaline buzz.
After that year spend hitchhiking around the world. I was faced with a challenge. How could I earn a living and still lead an adventurous life?
The answer was the US Foreign Service, which I joined in 1965.
It didn’t disappoint. I was in the middle of the Revolution in Libya in 1969, as I said, then I went to America’s war in Vietnam.
I went as a volunteer.
But I was no patriot.
I did what I did in Vietnam because I loved the adventures of being in the middle of a brutal war. I was appointed US Advisor to the City of Hué in the northern part of what was then South Vietnam. There I soon discovered how much I also loved the power that role gave me to make huge decisions and bear huge responsibilities as a relatively young man.
But my attitudes toward war and violence changed in Vietnam and that change began during a battle. Hué had been under siege by the North Vietnamese army and advanced units of the enemy were only 10 km away. The city was in great danger of falling. Many South Vietnamese officers had fled south to save themselves. Deserters from the South Vietnamese army had set fire to the marketplace and a heavy pall of black smoke hung over the city. Artillery boomed. Panicked people screamed. It was a scene from hell.
My job then was to try to deal with the looting and chaos in the city. Not knowing what else to do, I urged the mayor to set up a firing squad to start shooting the army deserters in order to dampen the panic—
Three execution poles were erected on the riverbank. To this day I don’t know if they were ever used because early the next morning American jets from carriers off the coast destroyed the North Vietnamese forces surrounding the city.
But I couldn’t forget what I’d done in ordering that firing squad.
I knew that America’s war was wrong. I knew the US was losing. I knew that those deserters were mostly innocent farm boys kidnapped by the army off their rice paddies only weeks or months before, given little training and scared out of their wits.
And yet I’d been a willing partner in this violence, and for the shallowest of reasons. Adventure and power. At least with tribal or political violence there’s a sense of supporting your own group. I did what I did in Vietnam only to please myself. My ego drove the narrative of my life then.
I thought about and agonized about my role in Vietnam for a long time.
Slowly my life began to change.
Promotions kept coming.
But what I was doing and why began to sit in my stomach like a bad meal.
You see, mixed in with all these adventures, all the tough guy stuff I was doing, was a set of dreams, of ideals—about peace, about fairness in the world, about ending the suffering caused by wars and revolutions and poverty. It was the beginning of a new narrative for my life but it was only a small, nagging voice from my heart and I ignored it for many years.
Then came a turning point--