I seem to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about other people’s stories. Time for a little disclosure abut my own story, and about finding my own voice in an age where everyone is saying something different, and in different languages.
That led me back to the ancient legend of the Tower of Babel, and to question the power behind the legend of this linguistic fall from grace, every bit as powerful as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, says the Book of Genesis “The whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” But for some reason, an angry God destroyed all this when he said: “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So once upon a time, everyone could understand and freely share each other’s story. That was humankind’s natural state; you didn’t have to be a writer, a broadcaster or a journalist to do this. In some ways blogging, Twitter, social media, Facebook, the internet, machine-driven translation software, is all bringing us back to that earlier ambitious phase of the Tower of Babel, before God angrily pulled the plug.
I believe in the power of story because I’ve spent half my life travelling to collect tales of people around the world, reshaping these stories, and sending them out with my name on top.
I wrote stories of scientists over-wintering in Portakabins on the Antarctic ice cap; of Indian tribal peoples or peasant rubber tappers in the Amazon rainforest confronting armed loggers and hostile gold prospectors; of Pathan warlords in the Khyber Pass. Stories with bank robbers, gun-runners, hunger strikers, the trial of a mass murderer, the hunt for a feared war criminal; of corporate shenanigans involving small pieces of paper and large amounts of money.
Scenes of takeovers, political and corporate, involving torn-up constitutions and large amounts of money. Interviews with presidents in their palaces, ministers in their ministries, rockstars, racing drivers, and the occasional celebrity. Along the way there’s been some tear gas, a few gunshots, (briefly) detention by the military, lawyers’ threats, and one persistent demand; “Somebody has to get this story out.”
A far as international journalism goes, it wasn’t anything like a great career. But it was good enough and it had its excitements — for the time. Well, acting as intermediary between people’s stories and the world is hugely stimulating ….. until you start to chafe at the one unbreakable ground-rule that puts iron in the soul.
Never get involved in the story. Fashion it, filter it, but keep moving along like a hunter-gatherer. Don’t get sucked in or put down roots. Never ‘go native’. Sometimes, holding a microphone or a notepad under people’s noses seems like a theft of their own true voices.
So one fine day up pops the question: “Do you want to go through life collecting and telling other people’s stories … or do you want to get your own hands dirty with a much bigger story – one that’s beyond your own power to tell because you’ll be living inside it?”
So, over 10 years ago I decided to give up journalism and do something else. That’s the day you finally wake up and start trying to make sense of your own story. There freedom begins. I guess you could say I was looking for a personal resolution of the “Confusion of Tongues” described in the Bible.
What I am learning — later than I would wish — is that the story is always bigger than the teller. And that while the storyteller is busily collecting, ordinary people are living, loving, losing and winning with courageous intensity to humble any observer on the sidelines.
Above all, I learned two things.
It is far harder yet far richer to tell your own story than anyone else’s. For it is only by doing so that we begin to live freely and courageously.
And that people need to tell and retell their own stories to achieve real empowerment. They must take charge to ensure honest delivery — whatever the audience and whatever the channel.
This is because the true voices of people living their own experiences can move mountains in ways that packaged and retold accounts never can. Whether the issue be one of politics, of business, of civic or personal achievement, using our own authentic voices is the only real guarantee of reaching out.
So now I dedicate my own voice to helping others find theirs.
To helping the protagonists of individual or collective dramas understand that they too can be Hercules, Luke Skywalker, Snow White or Sita. Helping them grasp their own power through the use of these archetypes, so they find themselves able to see further, just as Isaac Newton did, standing upon the shoulders of giants.
The bigger task involves getting my own hands dirty. Getting down in the mud to help with the anonymous business of making bricks. Making the bricks that when summed together in their billions represent the huge collective task of raising up a high edifice we might still – even in this multicultural world — call the great society of universal values. Part of the task, too, is correcting those who say there’s no longer such a thing as meaning in our post-modern world. Meaning comes from experience – shared meaning, shared experience.
This edifice is constructed from building blocks made from the mud of universal shared experience. It is raised up, brick by brick, from our tested humanist ideals and our experience of a generous world. Acts of service, of compassion, duty, discovery and freedom and above all of love. Such a tower — made of individual bricks assembled and raised up by nameless citizens — can reach to the stars. That, after all, was exactly how the great cathedrals of medieval and Gothic Christendom were originally built.
This great endeavour of shared, universal meaning failed once before in ancient times and we all know the story of the Tower of Babel. In the Book of Genesis it is written that after the Great Flood, 600,000 people got involved in a vast project. Jewish legend says this wasn’t just an engineering enterprise; it was a full-scale rebellion with a planned coup d’etat against God. the leader of the rebels was Nimrod, mighty hunter, man of power, a and great great great grandson of Noah of the Flood. As king of Babylon, he was the architect of the Tower of Babel.
The success of mankind in building a vast structure near Babylon in the Plain of Shinar made God both jealous and angry at humanity’s visible success. “God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.”
God couldn’t stand this, so he worked out a divide-and-rule plan for mankind based on mutual incomprehension: “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”
As that lofty enterprise came apart, we learned to see its ambition as evil, and the punishment of humanity divided by language, fitted the crime of daring to reach up to heaven.
But perhaps we have been taught to interpret this story in a way quite different to that originally intended. We are told it proves the need for humility under heaven, and teaches us that all our divisions and strife are just punishment for too much daring. It teaches us to fear freedom.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the old Bible story was there to mislead us: if we were truly free, then humanity would surely have built its mighty tower right up to heaven and made that an open place, from which we could come and go as we please, incarnation by incarnation. We would have a Stairway to Heaven.
So perhaps the very opposite is true and the over-reachers – not the humble – hold the keys to human evolution? Perhaps the ancient story of the Tower of Babel really tells us that if we regain our harmony of voices and a shared story, we will then regain the bravery to continue, building up and up until we sit as equals at God’s table among the stars. We deserve a Stairway to Heaven, and though God may once have thwarted primitive man’s to make one, we’re now grown up enough to have a second shot.
So I’ll get back to stacking the bricks from which this new Tower is being built by every one of us who believes the best is yet to come, and that we owe it to ourselves to go higher. Not with pride, but with humility.