“I want to be Bob Dylan. Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky.”
The strains of Counting Crows’ signature song, now 25 years old, reach out to brush against each corner of our living room. This Saturday morning, my 6-year-old calls out requests from a limited catalog of songs he knows. “Mr. Jones” it is. He listens for the hook. I carry the memory of every time I silently wish to be someone else.
Sometimes it seems that outright idol worship—the wanting to be Bob Dylan—weighs less than the elusive gospels of self-improvement promoted by imposter syndrome and dissatisfaction.
As a kid, my bedroom walls told the tale of who I wanted to be. A rotating gallery of icons looked down on me from movie posters and magazine cut-outs. Tom Hanks circa “Big,” with his eternally boyish charms. Barry Bonds, his effortless, left-handed swing like poetry breaching the physical world. Clever comics plotting punchlines; half-human, half-divine rock stars basking in the hot light of adoration.
We loosen our grip on the prospects of universal adoration and hold on for dear life. Shelving skyscraper hopes, we spend our lives tinkering at the margins.
The inevitable crush comes. You’ll never be America’s sweetheart, you learn. You’re just a fraction of the man Barry Bonds is—even before his dalliance with steroids. These rude awakenings hurt like hell, but most of us quickly move along. Especially after we do the math. The odds of becoming Tom Hanks or Bob Dylan temper our ambitions; we stand a greater chance of being struck by lightning than trapping it in a bottle.
We loosen our grip on the prospects of universal adoration and hold on for dear life. Shelving skyscraper hopes, we spend our lives tinkering at the margins. We wish to be just a little more funky, a little more well-read, a little more youthful—right there, just around the eyes—because we question if we even belong on the peripheral.
A writer friend and I traded messages the other day, commiserating over common bouts with imposter syndrome. With our words like prayers and our DMs like a confessional booth, I recalled the many times I feared my next article, my next sentence even, would reveal the emperor’s lack of clothes. Counting down the minutes till your fraud is exposed, counting on yourself to commit a mistake at the point of no return, comes with a shortness of breath, with a sense the walls sit a few inches closer than they did yesterday.
For me, the shame comes with a thousand cuts. A word leaves my mouth within a circle of people and, before it finishes its flight path, I want to call it back. I send a tweet into the atmosphere like a carrier pigeon, praying it returns with affirmation, straining my eyes against the sky until it does. I share an essay with my editor, just sure the red ink on this one will spell out the word “poser.” In the in-between, the moments between message sent and message received, I rifle through my closet and select one of a dozen identical hair shirts. Surprise, surprise—it fits, and chafes, just right.
This devil lives in the littlest details, waging spiritual warfare by keeping us busy. Busy covering our tracks. Busy looking over our shoulders. Busy cramming for each moment like a final exam. How do we fight back when the war is coming from inside the house?
Calm comes in those rare moments when I see my soul as if through the crystalline surface of a frozen lake. To riff on a Tim Keller slogan, I recognize myself as someone more fraudulent than I can ever know, yet loved with immeasurable height, depth, and width.
Knowing the difference between sanctification and perpetual self-improvement is half the imposter-syndrome battle.
Knowing the difference between sanctification and perpetual self-improvement is half the imposter-syndrome battle. One moves toward Christ-likeness; the other keeps up a charade. One finds its motivation through unbroken acceptance; the other immediately distrusts any affirming word, turning it into a cudgel, not a comfort. One finds its way widening by the minute, making room enough for failure and growth; the other trips over every mistake along an impossibly narrow incline, the skin scraped away from its knees and elbows long ago.
Like a dog chasing its tail, I turn in circles trying to identify the blindspots Christ already sees. If I could look with his eyes, every little lie and artifice I noticed would mortify me. Rather than point and laugh, he embraces me still.
Before knowing Jesus, I was a fake making every effort to justify myself and be found worthy of love. The only genuine article, he stood in the place of imposters like me, living and dying as our remedy. Now I belong to him, because of him.
As the first verse of that Counting Crows classic becomes the second, then a pining chorus, frontman Adam Duritz sings a phrase as true as any, “We all want something beautiful.”
Then, almost as an aside, he tosses another line out of the corner of his mouth.“Man, I wish I was beautiful.”
All of us want something beautiful. Left alone, we only see the scars, the black-and-blue eyes, every blemish and contusion. But Jesus makes beautiful things; I no longer have to wish I was beautiful. Mr. Jones and me—and you—are who he says we are; we look the way he sees us.