If I could start my adult life over, I would do some things differently.
Knowing what I know now, I would avoid the newspaper business entirely. I also wouldn’t have spent two decades working in politics. What would I do instead?
I would become a filmmaker, an academic or a psychologist. Those three might sound rather different, but I’ve thought seriously about all three. The more I think consider it, the more sense it makes — because all three are different faces of something I do quite naturally.
You see, I’m a storyteller.
The sculptures you see above in the fountain at Five Points South in Birmingham are collectively called “The Storyteller.” The guy with the goat head is the storyteller himself. It was intended to convey the importance of storytelling in the South’s oral tradition.
Everything I’ve ever done was about storytelling in one way or another. In newspapers, I told stories and helped weave a coherent community narrative as I edited newspapers. In politics, I created narratives about clients which I sold to a gullible public.
If I could start life again, I would use storytelling in a different way. Filmmakers, academics and psychologists are at their best when they tell stories. They weave meaningful narratives to help confused people find their way in a world which is changing.
For a long time, I struggled to find my calling in the form of what I did. Early in life, I felt called to the ministry. Then for a long time, I saw newspapers as a form of calling. After that, I thought I could change the world in a positive way through politics.
I saw those specific roles as a calling. Even though I did the work of all three at one time or another, those forms didn’t seem right. And now I suspect it’s because my calling was never about the form.
It was about the meaning of the stories instead.
The longer I live, the more I have to say that I believe would be useful for individuals and for the decaying culture around us. In a way, I am the “anti-story” in the current culture. I am more like the Old Testament prophet who dramatically shows up — after God forces him to finally obey — and tells the people to repent.
My stories aren’t about sin. They’re not about obedience. They’re not about putting away idols. No, they’re about ideas instead. My stories are about how we — as individuals and as communities — can choose to turn away from the bright and shiny things which are slowly destroying us.
Ultimately, my story is about grounding ourselves in where we’ve come from — the best of the past — and about how we can shed the trappings of the “false self” that we grow up learning to be in order to be accepted.
I don’t glorify the past and I don’t hate change, but the more I understand about how we have gotten to the point where we are as a culture — and the more I see how we’re imploding — the more I realize how desperate many people are for an alternative. Millions and millions of people seem uneasy and unhappy with modern life, but without quite understanding why.
The stories I have to tell lay a narrative for understanding why we’ve felt this way. And they suggest some paths that we as individuals can take to get to somewhere more healthy, even if the rest of the culture continues over a cliff.
A filmmaker can certainly tell these stories. An academic can weave the same narratives to influence public thinking. And a psychologist uses the same sorts of stories to help his clients understand themselves and how they might be able to dig their way out of their problems.
I have a lot that I need to say. I have a powerful message. It feels like a calling. It’s a broad but integrated collection of narratives to help life make sense, for individuals and for the culture. It’s a call to sanity and personal peace.
It’s part psychology. It’s part serious academic thought. It’s part entertainment.
But it’s all storytelling.