Snake Oil

I wonder if this is what Luther felt like on first making sense of Romans 1:17 and realizing that he didn't, after all, need to do any works in order to be saved.

I have spent more or less my entire adult life feeling like there was something wrong with me.  No--make that my entire conscious life. I can barely remember a time when I was not convinced that there was something that needed fixing. My weight, my appetite, my eating habits, my temper, my choice of a career. I've been melancholically counting calories since I was seven; telling myself I was a terrible person for feeling what I did since I was five; convinced that if only I could find the right piece of advice I would be able to fix everything and become a new person since I could read. Okay, at the very least since I started subscribing to Seventeen back when I was eleven or twelve.

Decades of diets and advice books later, what do I realize at long last?  I never needed any of them in the first place.   I was fine the way I was.  Am right now.  Will be even if I never read another self-help book again.*  So how did I get sucked in?  Ah.  Let's see.  I could blame on it our celebrity-obsessed media culture, but I know that it goes back further than that.  We are, as Leigh Eric Schmidt has so brilliantly shown, a nation of seekers.  Read: a nation obsessed with the conviction that there is an answer out there to what ails us as human beings and that it is our God-given right to go find it.  Or, rather: a nation still languishing in the throes of post-Romantic Transcendentalism, convinced that it is possible continuously to reinvent ourselves as artists.  Or, rather, again: a nation heir to a centuries-long tradition of spiritual exercises going back through Luther to Cassian and the desert fathers, who, like all good post-Foucauldian scholars, spent their days in constant self-examination, anxious to detect the faintest hint of (in)authenticity.  Seekers of bliss.  Seekers of snake oil.

"Snake oil": something that promises to cure you of an ailment that you didn't even know you had until presented with the possibility of curing it.  Like fatness.  Or lack of talent.  Or impatience.  Or unhappiness.  When you were ten.  It's funny, I bridle instantly whenever I come across some reference (e.g. in Anodea Judith) about overcoming previous conditioning to self-criticism thanks (typically) to one's "traditional religious upbringing."  And yet nobody ever says anything about overcoming the conditioning of believing that one should spend one's life in constant self-improvement.  I do not feel and never have felt (at least, not so as I can remember) oppressed by my faith in God.  I do not spend my days worrying about what God might or might not think about my sex life (which is different from worrying about what God might think about how I have treated some of my sexual partners).  I do, however, and have spent years, indeed, decades of my life feeling guilty--indeed, sinful--for being "overweight" or "lazy" or "uncreative" or "depressed."  Not to mention "ugly".

As if, a) I were any of these things; and b) any of them were actually a sin.  Talk about overscrupulous.  Luther had nothing on me.  "Bless me, father, for I have sinned.  I ate a whole box of cookies and six candy bars last night."  "Bless me, father, for I have sinned.  I haven't discovered my bliss yet and I'm wasting my talents."  "Bless me, father, for I have sinned.  I don't feel happy all of the time as I know that I should."  Give me a break.  Indeed, give me a break: I am not a failure and never have been.  Not even when I was dumpy and bespectacled back in elementary school and had no friends.  Not even when I was obsessively worrying about coming first in my class my senior year in high school.  Not even now when I have spent the last week taking care of things like the cat** and the mortgage and the car rather than working on that paper on spiritual exercises.  It is as my sister's guru Baron says: "There is nothing to fix and there never was.  What you are doing now is exactly what you are meant to be doing" (or words to that effect).  Even better, I do not need ("need") to go on a yoga retreat or what-have-you to learn this.  Or, for that matter, do anything else.

I can't tell you how liberating (in a fully Lutheran sense) this thought makes me feel.  Not just that I am forgiven; I'm not sure that that is even what Luther felt.  But, rather, that I have been worrying about fixing things that were never broken in the first place.  My body, in all of its fleshly existence.  My character, in all of its obsessions and passions.  My daily habits, in all of their random, undisciplined arbitrariness.  I am never going to make myself wake up early to do yoga again.  Not that I have been for the past several months, not since this summer, in fact, when my husband and I started talking about ways that our daily patterns needed to change.  It is only now, however, some six months later that I understand why I do not need to do yoga every morning in order to be a good person.  Doing yoga every morning (or eating the perfect diet/thinking only optimistic thoughts/following my bliss) has nothing to do with anything other than whether I want to do it.  Nor am I a bad person if I don't want to.

And why should it matter--except to the thousands of people out there who have made it their business to share their spiritual exercises with me and who are trying to convince me to buy their snake oil?  No, I don't think that they are all charlatans.  But I do think that they have fallen prey to the same seduction of the Snake as I have.  Not just: "You will be like gods."  But also: "You want to be like gods."  Did I know this when I was five?  When I was six?  When was it that I learned that I should want to be something other than what I am?  To have interests other than the ones that I have?  To look other than I do even when I am clean and wearing clothes that I like?  To doubt everything about myself other than the thought that there was something wrong with me?  Talk about the crushing doctrine of original sin (which, by the by, I find anything but).  Try the crushing doctrine of perpetual self-improvement.  Always something you could be doing better.  Always something you should have done.  Your life perpetually on the block.

I know, it's ironic (or maybe just telling).  I wrote a post almost identical to this one about this time last year.  Funny how long it's taken me to realize the full extent of what it means to love what is.  I really want to believe that that next bottle of snake oil will do it, don't I?  I really want to be able to buy something that will take away all of the pain and make my life perfect.  When, in actual fact, it already is.

*Unlikely, but there you go.  Old habits are hard to break.
**Who finally pooped by herself this morning for the first time in over two weeks.


  1. An absolutely brilliant post, and a gem of a blog. I am not a religious person, but the contrast you draw between the (alleged) evils of a religious upbringing and the very real and pernicious evils of mainstream socialization is extemely compelling.

    Does your current attitude toward your life draw any inspiration from Nietzche's amor fati?

  2. Thanks, Nick! I'm happy you enjoyed the post. I haven't read much Nietzsche since college, so I am not conscious of drawing on him, but it's possible that more stuck from my earlier reading than I am aware. Culture is like that--sticky!


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