What does a former reality-television star do once the show ends? What happens after the winner has taken the cash and the others have left empty-handed?
One would think survivors of the popular CBS series Survivor would find satisfaction and contentment with their fifteen minutes of fame and perhaps disappear into the oblivion with the rest of us. Instead, we often catch them on the morning talk shows as "special correspondents." If we look closely, we might even spot them in movies as extras walking by or sipping coffee at the shop where chaos will strike. Perhaps, if they still crave drama, we might see them on a soap opera. Yet, while tempted to follow the steps of most former reality contestants, Austin Carty felt God had a different path for him.
Wait. Austin Carty who? Carty's fans will remember him as the "Christian guy" on Survivor: Panama-Exile Island 2006. Others will recognize him as a popular Christian speaker and communicator.
While on Survivor, Carty learned a valuable lesson about God, and although he left without the million dollars, he walked away having learned to rely on God both for his physical and his spiritual needs. A moment with God on the beach forced him to evaluate himself and deal with his insecurities.
What does that mean for Austin Carty now? As a Christian since childhood, Austin had a difficult time figuring what his role looked like as a child of God. In his memoir titled High Points and Lows: Life, Faith and Figuring It All Out, Carty takes readers on a journey of self-evaluations, using essays to communicate his struggles as a Christian. Recently, on a snow-free day while travelling in Virginia, Carty took some time to discuss how his experiences have influenced his Christian walk and his quest to discover what it truly means to love others. …
Since High Points and Lows is your first book with a major publisher, most people will probably recognize you first and foremost as a contestant from Survivor: Panama. Could you describe what that reality television experience was like and how it affected your faith?
It's been a wonderful experience because it did completely both try and influence my faith in so many different ways. Going out there I really did not know what to expect. I thought I was going to be fine to compete on this show that I had watched so many times. Obviously I'd be lying if to say I didn't want to try to win a million dollars, but I did not know how it was going to affect my faith. Going in, I'd wanted things before but I never needed anything before, and I found out that there is a very big difference there. Most of us—especially in our country—are blessed in the sense that there are so very few of us actually in that position where we really legitimately need things, like the basic things like food and water and shelter. And out there, you are deprived of all those things, and it's on your shoulders to get them. It's tough, it's very difficult and it's very trying.
The main thing I took away from Survivor was that I found out that Survivor is not just a game show—it's not just about trying to win a million dollars—that I found out that instead it's a microcosm of life. I found out that Survivor is about pushing each contestant's back against the wall. To push them to a place that they have never been before, where you never wanted to go, and just like in life he wants to quit, but knows that he can't. So he is forced to fight … and as time goes by he is forced to pray, and then more times goes by and he begins to doubt but then more time goes by and he finds that he comes to believe. And if he comes to believe in himself then he can do a whole heck of a lot. And when he believes in someone bigger than himself, he can do absolutely anything. So that really is the primary spiritual lesson that I was able to take from the game of Survivor and then come back to the real world and sort of apply that to my life.
Unlike other reality TV contestants, who quickly move into acting or hosting or other reality TV shows, you pursued writing and becoming a speaker. Talk a little bit about your decision to go that route.
I talk in the book about how it's very easy to get caught up in the false praise of simply being on television. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that just because you went out and starved and ate some bugs out on an island doesn't make you a legitimate actor and actress or artist—because you kind of bathe in this praise and affirmation of strangers for 15 seconds, and I came close into buying into that, too. L.A. and New York were teeming at one time with reality personalities [who] want a little bit more of that television fame and notoriety, and I don't want to make light of that at all because I completely understand that compulsion.
Luckily for me, I had such a desire to be a writer and I—around that time—I was listening to a song by Switchfoot, that I had heard a million times before, but for some reason the lyrics of that song really spoke to me at that time. "This is your life. Are you who you want to be?" I've heard that song millions of times before, but for some reason that stopped me cold when I heard it that time. And I knew in pursuing this road of acting and trying to follow up on these couple of soap operas that had expressed a little bit of interest, I knew that wasn't where my passion was. That wasn't what I really wanted to do. So instead, I decided that I was gonna stay with the route that I was on even if it wasn't going to bring in … what the world considers success, financial reward … and then traveling around and speaking.
Who did you have in mind when you wrote High Points and Lows? Were you writing for someone like yourself or any specific type of individual?
That's a really good question because a lot of the time people will ask me what the target audience is, and you can pretty much answer it with the rest of that question. I was writing a book that actually spoke of my own experiences. So the book was written to anybody who had experiences like mine. I've been getting responses from really all across the board from grandparents to parents, to college students to kids in high school. It seems that so many people have experienced, like me, that feeling of knowing that they are part of a faith conversation, but not quite knowing where they fit in that. They know what they believe in, and they love Jesus, but their lives are not perfect and that they are reveling in insecurities and fear. And I think in reading other people's stories, where they kind of confess some of things that they are not really proud of in their life and I think other people that have similar experiences, [they] can relate and know that they are not alone.
After reading about some of your life experiences, it seems that you want your time here on earth to really matter and count for something bigger than yourself. What would you say is most important in your legacy and in your witness to others?
Well, I think that the very most important thing is to, and as much as possible, be as focused on my relationship with Christ. It is so easy to think we are doing something purely motivated when in fact it is simply for self-gain. So you know that is probably the number one running force for me in all that I do. What I've been wanting to do is I want to be able to impact other people's lives and to share the message that Jesus is such a loving, relatable God and not the judgmental, vindictive God that is so easy to consider God being.
There is a great book called The Perks of Being a Wildflower where one of the characters says, "We accept the love we think we deserve." I think that is one of the most profound statements I have ever read, because I think it's true. I think we spend most of our lives running from and trying to hide from and repressing our shames, our insecurities and consequently we unconsciously believe ourselves to be unlovable. So I think that is one of the real hang-ups is for those of us who are Christians when it comes to really understanding grace, because we only believe ourselves to be so lovable. And we can't unconditionally love ourselves with our insecurities and shames, and you know all that being right there in front so then it's very hard to be able to accept God's offer of unconditional love.
In the essay "The Love Boat" you talk about how you learned that God "didn't require his followers to be perfect and instead he expected his followers to be flawed and shameful." So once somebody grasps that and realizes they are accepted and that there is grace, where do you go from there in how you live?
In facing all those different things that I used to try to hide so much from … the fact that I am driven by this fear of people not liking me and all of these different fears that I lay out right there … it was keeping me from being able to really understand and appreciate the idea of grace. And then … in being able then to understand who I am and what makes me tick, and really understanding the concept of grace—and again we are going to be flawed—it relieves us of this pressure that we have to be perfect before God. And when that pressure is off, then we can actually sit back and enjoy the relationship we have with Him.
My pastor once gave this wonderful definition of grace where he said that sin, by definition, is made running from God and grace, by definition, is God intervening what man is trying to run. I think that is so beautiful. In taking that a step further, in my own head, grace is the ability for God's intervention in your life to be in a place in your life where you can just sit back and just be. As human beings it is so hard for us to be so comfortable with ourselves to just be. And I think that once we have really been able to accept the grace—to accept the unmerited favor of God—then it allows us to move forward in our lives and be able to do great things for Him, to be able to unconditionally love others, knowing that we are going to screw up, but not having so much pressure on ourselves that we actually have to be doing something to earn God's favor.
I think that is a work in progress for everybody, because I think that once you think you finally have the answers for that that then you're going to realize that you don't have it at all. But I think that in the refining process, I think that there is a big difference in saying that we understand ourselves to be sinful and flawed and truly realizing that we are. And I think that's where true repentance and humility comes in. It's when you do realize how finite and limited and flawed human beings are and how perfect and righteous and loving God is. And I think when you've encountered that unconditional grace of God and been humbled by it, then it causes you to want to get out and be that type of witness to show people what true unconditional love is—not in words but in deed.
Speaking of being humbled, in the essay "Math Genius" you talk about learning a very hard lesson about cheating while in high school. And then, ten years later, you had to go back to that very same school and give a speech in front of the faculty and student body. What happened?
Through a series of miscommunications, I had I ended up cheating on a math standard test. It turned out that I was one of only four students in the country that got all four of those right and the school ended up making a pretty big deal about it. You know they were going to call the local news and have it written up in the local paper and they were lauding me as a math genius. A couple of days later I'd ended up getting called up, and I had confessed to what I had done.
Fast forward two years after that, and my graduation was approaching. And I was one out of only seven students in my graduating class out of 50 that was not either in the National Honor Society or the Beta Club, and I was pretty full of some self righteous indignation about that because I thought that I had certainly good enough grades and that I had a pretty good list of extra-curricular activities, too. So I went into see my English teacher who was responsible for those clubs, and I walked in the door and I went up ready to present my case. And she said, "Austin, you cheat in my class all the time." And I kind of looked at her, and you kind of don't expect your teacher to have known that that kind of thing was going on. I'm not proud to have to tell you that I cheated all the time. In life if there was an easier way, I took it. So anyway, she said, "Do you really want to make an issue of this?" I said, "No, I suppose I don't." She then had to leave her classroom, and I saw in the corner a box of the gold patch honor society shawls. And I went over there and grabbed one, and whenever we had graduation I had it in my pocket and for years I told people that I was part of the National Honor Society. And you know, I didn't think too much about it.
But then after I grew up a little bit, and I got to understand my faith better who I was as a person … I suddenly realized … how much we are robbing ourselves when we misrepresent ourselves and claiming we are people that we are not—that we are stealing from the people's right to the truth and honesty and fairness. I became a speaker, and I was traveling around speaking in Christian circles and I was asked to come speak at my old high school. After I delivered my speech, I told them that I spent years being a fraud and misrepresenting myself. And I called that teacher up front, and I held up the gold National Honor Society shawl that I had stolen all those years and I told her that I was giving it back to the school because I did not deserve it all along.
Learning lessons like that can be so hard, even though they bring about growth. What would you say to readers who feel like giving up, though? To those who are searching, but maybe don't want to put forth the effort into really digging in God's Word for answers or for real life change?
Yeah, just like I say in the "Love Boat" essay that they are in good company because I have been there and have felt that way. I would encourage them to do what I do which is crack open the Bible and really read the gospels yourselves. Try it without any preconceived bias and ideas and just read about who Jesus really was and what He stood for. Read the Gospel message, and I think people will find the hope that I did—the hope that the message was intended to convey. It stood for humble love in a cruel world, and how He offered us redemption from our fears and our emptiness.
How has your life changed from being in the Church and staying rooted in the Word?
Well, it makes all the difference in the world ‘cause I don't live in fear. I don't live in nearly the same fears of myself and of God, because now I understand that in accepting God's love for me it allows me to love myself which then in turns allows me to be able to ultimately love other people.
And going back to what I said earlier, there is a big wide gap that separates talking about loving other people and being able to fully love other people. I think that what happens then is that we have to be able to come to a point where we love ourselves and understand ourselves enough to be able to understand God's grace and unconditional love, and then we can finally put into practice the things that before we were talking about.
You showed some love at the beginning of your book with an acknowledgement to your dad: "For my Dad, Seadog, who was always man enough to tell me he loved me." In this day and age when most say thanks to Mom, it's unusual to see someone thanking a father. What made you decide to do that?
A very simple answer to your question is few people are blessed enough to have anybody with their opinion and advice that they trust their counsel … and tell them to keep pursuing something that goes against the grain and following a pipe dream in creative aspiration. Not only do I have somebody whose counsel I value, it was my dad. And for a guy there is nobody who, as guys—I can only talk from a guy's experience—whether we are willing to admit it or not we are caught up in constantly seeking our father's approval, wondering if they are proud of us. So few people actually have that who are willing to let them know how much they love them, and you know from a young age I never had to doubt that my dad loved me.
When you know your parents love you, it enables you to actually go out and try to do things that unconventional and against the grain while a lot of people are telling you that you are an idiot. I attribute anything good that I have ever done, which is probably very few things, but whatever I've done it has been driven by any sense of bravery or courage, and it's because I had parents who told me they loved me and directly a father who told me he loved me.
Where do you hope this book ends up—other than the best-seller's list naturally?
That is my answer. Well, I hope it ends up on a lot of bookshelves. I hope that it will end up in the hands of people who are very interested in exploring their own relationships with God and faith, and that they are able to see some of their own struggles and fears and joys and triumphs in my own life story. And I hope ... it will be one they pass to other friends, because they think that it might help them understand themselves better, too.
What is next for you? Any other irons in the fire besides speaking and writing?
Well, I'm working on two books right now. I'm working on a novel and a follow-up to High Points and Lows. And really that, and speaking, is what I'm focusing on right now. I've got aspirations to one day try to throw my hat in Nashville country songwriting, but that may be down the road.
Get out! Do you play guitar?
Yes, I do, but I sing like William Hung from American Idol. [Laughs]. Yes, I am unfortunately completely tone deaf, so you will never hear me singing anything. But I do play guitar, and I do like writing music and writing songs. So I do have aspirations to be a songwriter.
Very interesting. And if you get a song on American Idol, then you'll be in good company since both former American Idol contestants Chris Daughtry and Fantasia Barrino also hail from your hometown of High Point, North Carolina.
Well maybe in that case I won't be an intern in the "(Un)official Bureau of High Point Reality Stars." Maybe if I can get a song on American Idol, maybe they will move me up to secretary or something.
That could be in your follow-up to High Points and Lows.
You know what, that is exactly right! That can be in the next book how I could climb the corporate ladder of the "(Un)official Bureau of High Point Reality Stars."
To read more about Austin Carty, his book High Points and Lows and to find out more information regarding his speaking engagements and appearances, please visit www.austincarty.com.
**This interview first published on March 9, 2010.