We are dissatisfied with who we have come to be; all of us, vexed by the selves we negotiate the world as. Funded though they are by the nature of what we are, we recognize that who we have been overwhelmingly shapes who we are at present. We can imagine counterfactual selves, but the reality is the flood of our lifetime’s worth of choices has given rise to who we are today. And sometimes the most dismaying conclusion I can reach is that I must be who I am. But who else can I be?

Cognitively, I assent to the fact that I have received forgiveness and that it is in no way dependent upon my subsequent moral record. But when scripture speaks of renewal through the Spirit, it drives me to howl for a wholeness I have never fully experienced but that I desire with all the self I want to identify as truly me. Do you never ache to puncture the chrysalis of your present, stupid existence and to become attuned to a different frequency of being? One that can endure even a nanosecond longer the absurdity and the demands of life in the present world without drying up in exhaustion? One that loves with greater fidelity and ardency? One that rings in sympathy with the heart of Jesus Christ?

The reappearance of Lent invites us to reconsider our aspirations for growth and how to possibly arrive at them. This season of repentance is not a morbid concentration on the sickness of our lives but a preparation for something: Easter, and beyond even that, a future fullness which Easter anticipates. We are told the truth: we are frail, we will die, we have much that is dreadfully wrong in us. But these things do not disqualify our bent towards life and fullness; acknowledging them actually serves as the requisite for arriving at life and fullness. None of us are content to simply brood in the mire of our deficiencies. As such we are invited into the wilderness to follow a Savior who, in denying himself, grants those who follow the ability to live with themselves.

A while ago I found myself at the library perusing the new release shelves, these preoccupations interrupting my conscious thoughts, when my eyes locked on a peachy hardcover volume, no doubt because I had pre-consciously laid hold of the title: You’re Not That Great (But Neither Is Anyone Else) by Elan Gale.

Well—there it is: the book my superego has been petitioning for all these years. Burdened with destiny, I took up and read.

Grand Central Publishing | Hachette Book Group

There are many funny bits that a theologia crucis could affirm in this little tome. Gale blasts away at vapid positivity-talk with armor-piercing rounds of realism:

This book is here to help you turn those “negative” emotions into action that will make you better instead of just feeling better about who you are already are. It won’t make you feel good, but it might make you be good.

Gale is right to call out the fact that the majority of self-help merely anesthetizes our awareness of having fallen short. It short-circuits the Law, as it mutes the accusations rather than heeding them as indicative of something. Gale compensates for this silencing by cranking the homing missiles’ scream to eleven:

Thankfully, even if you’ve been successful at purging all the negative people from your life, you still have access to the most destructive and violent force of all: yourself.

No one can possibly dislike you as much as you can dislike yourself. That’s because no one knows you as well as you know yourself, and the more you get to know about yourself, the more likely you are to be able to be hypercritical. You can hide your flaws from all your “friends,” but you can’t ever fully kill off the other, more honest little voice inside of you that says exactly how you feel about yourself.

This is the truth. Or rather, a truth. None of us are able to utterly escape the awareness of our comprehensive, lived deficiency. None of us can utterly silence the inner arraignments that keep our inadequacies, however long past they may be, viscerally present. Gale advises us that this is good: “When you finally unleash the surging pile of built-up self-loathing that lives inside your head, you’ll find yourself significantly more capable of actually doing the things you want to do.”

I have no doubt whatsoever that such a maelstrom of self-repugnance and personally directed torment will compel us to do something, but I doubt that it will be good. I have sought change by ratcheting up self-disgust, but in every instance I have only run in blind, animal panic towards exit points that fall off into other troubles, many of them equally as bad as what I was trying to escape.

Ultimately, Gale advocates the abandonment of hope:

THIS IS WHERE YOU MUST BEGIN TO SEE ROCK BOTTOM AS YOUR FRIEND, NOT YOUR ENEMY. HERE IS WHERE YOU MUST ABANDON HOPE. HOPE IS YOUR ENEMY. HOPE IS THE AUNT WHO TELLS YOU YOU’RE A GREAT SINGER AND THEN YOU END UP IN AN AMERICAN IDOL COMMERCIAL AND THAT’S ALL THAT HAPPENS TO YOU FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

(Yes, he uses capital letters for an entire paragraph, and yes, that does happen periodically throughout the book, giving it the look and tone of a Facebook rant.) I’m not sure how unequivocal this is meant to be, but good grief is that some terrible advice. I know what he’s trying to do here: in the same way he’s already deflated the party balloons of positivity, he’s filtering out all the noise he can to expose how most of the world’s hope isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. But what he has identified as “hope” is not, in fact, hope. Hope is not your enemy: the fantasies and bogus reassurances that masquerade as hope are. They are the soporifics that will promise all is well, when you know in the aching of your all-too-often clenched fists it is not.

Gale is correct to urge us all to abandon these counterfeits for hope, but is wrong to claim we will arrive at something better if we turn to self-loathing. That is the way to diminishment, to fearfully covering up how far we are yet short of that “better,” to the searing desperation to have our backs unbowed by the burdens we’ve amassed.

No matter where or when we are, it is perpetually too late to become who we might have been. That person is long gone, forever outdistanced by the present, like Achilles in Zeno’s paradox. And should we ever arrive at some version of the ideal self that once might have been, we can never erase the stupid, shameful years that went before it. That which we are, we are, and whatever we will be we cannot yet be. But rather than leading to despair, this realization can relieve us of the millstone-like burden to unmake our pasts.

Read parts 2 and 3 here.