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The Man Behind the Curtain

Derek Caldwell

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The great Oz has spoken!

– The Wizard of Oz [1]

I am Barry Egan. A fraud, a pretender, an imposter. These were my thoughts after I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, just a year after graduating high school. In the movie, Egan is surrounded by sisters who constantly berate him, and he in turn goes inward to protect himself while projecting outwardly the put-together, rational, capable person he needs to be to survive. No one is fooled. While I didn’t have sisters who berated me, I certainly felt that crippling pressure to be someone I wasn’t.

I remember hearing once that people spend four years in high school trying to prove to everyone that they are not at all different, followed by four years in college where they try to prove they’re different from anyone that has ever existed. Whoever they truly are doesn’t matter. They probably don’t even know themselves. I know I didn’t. All that matters is the projection of either conformity or individuality. We want to be seen, we need to be known, and we conform to that which allows us to be seen and known, and maybe even exalted, with the least amount of collateral damage.[2] We embody the ideas of Charles Cooley’s “looking-glass self,” which can be summarized as: “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”[3]

The Knight in Shining Facade

Frederick Buechner wrote, “During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”[4] Lent is a time of honesty, a time when we break down façades we have created for ourselves. But we have been taught in the art of spycraft and going undetected. We cultivate our Instagram life but keep our messes stacked perilously high in a closet. These façades become crutches that help prop us up socially. To peek behind the façade and look with honesty at ourselves is more difficult than we imagine. All of us to one degree or another suffer from what has been called Imposter Syndrome, some more seriously than others.

But what is an imposter? In 2008 I traveled to Chicago with some friends to see the rock band Kings of Leon perform a Halloween concert. I went as Hannibal Lecter because I was so “edgy.” One of us was dressed up as Ivan Drago, the chiseled Soviet boxer from 1985’s Rocky IV. In the movie, Drago is touted as having a 100-0 record, winning all 100 fights via knockout. As this other Ivan Drago participated in the revelry of the evening a bit more than wisdom should have permitted, he randomly picked another man in the audience to pester, eventually ending in a fight. This time, Drago went down in the first. Clearly, this Drago was an imposter.

And this is essentially what the Imposter is. The image of strength attempting to protect a felt vulnerability or weakness. And when the Imposter begins to take over and believe its own hype, there is often a swift, first-round trouncing.

Imposter Syndrome is when we, too, become convinced that we are imposters. An Imposter is an alter-ego of our own making that came along at some point in the past to protect us from the pain of failure, the feeling of inadequacy, or the heartbreak of rejection. It suggests that we shouldn’t take risks because those risks will lead to disaster—someone knowing that we aren’t who we claim to be. It provides a layer of protection, like a warm coat, between us and a frigid world. All too often, we can even feel this pressure to project perfection in our churches where it is as if grace only applies up to the point of baptism. Dramatic conversion stories are wonderful, even encouraged, so long as the drama is left in the water.

I have struggled with feeling like an imposter most of my life—in church, in school, with friends, you name it. I can’t accept even the slightest amount of praise before my mind instantly turns to if you only knew.

Writing a letter to his own Imposter, Brennan Manning takes a kind approach to saying goodbye. Thanking him for being there for him when he was a child and no one else was, he writes, “Without your intervention, I would have been overwhelmed by dread and paralyzed by fear.”[5] The imposter is created by fear and then acts as a protector against fear. But, Manning noticed something one day. When the Imposter taught him how to hide in order to stay safe and protected, a rather insidious lesson snuck in at the same time:

You taught me how to hide my real self from everyone and initiated a lifelong process of concealment, containment, and withdrawal. Your resourcefulness enabled me to survive. But then your malevolent side appeared and you started lying to me. Brennan, you whispered, if you persist in this folly of being yourself, your few long-suffering friends will hit the bricks, leaving you all alone. Stuff your feelings, shut down your memories, withhold your opinions, and develop social graces so you’ll fit in wherever you are.

[6]

The problem, Brennan explains, is that for a time the Imposter works. It fulfills the desire to be loved without the vulnerability that threatens to expose and crush (or so the fear goes). It is like placing a Band-Aid on a cut, then another, and then another, and exalting the Band-Aid without ever addressing where the cuts are coming from.

From Perfection to Confession

In the world of Christianity, we have too often fallen victim to an unattainable perfectionism as we seek sanctification. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of Christian community in a way that I can’t help but apply to the individual as well:

Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

[7]

In our error of falling in love with the ideal that is not yet, we have failed to notice the beauty of a soul on the road to redemption. Yes, we are all sinners and capable of more than we are giving, but we often turn that into a yoke heavier than we can carry. And failing to recognize the beauty, we fail to offer the kindness, mercy, and grace in the face of defeat that catalyzes real growth.

The remedy to all of this is an ancient one. No, not a spell or a potion—though this inner duality does feel at times to be a witch’s curse upon us—but a confessio.[8] The Imposter—that helper who became a harmer—wants to be seen and praised but not scrutinized or challenged. It is a narcissist. And we want that too because we want what the Imposter is hiding to remain hidden, to keep hidden away those embarrassing parts of us that we can’t bear being known. But their being known is the key to their defeat.

“Sin wants to be alone with people,” writes Bonhoeffer. “Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of another Christian, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned.”[9] This involves something of a humiliation, which we instinctively recoil from. It’s what we’ve been avoiding all these years. But this is not a humiliation to shame; it is a humiliation away from shame and toward a humility that will save us from these destructive patterns in the future! Bonhoeffer laments, “Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory of such humiliation.” But in this act, he writes, there is “a breakthrough to assurance. … God gives us this assurance through one another. The other believer breaks the circle of self-deception.”[10]

This notion of confession is what Brennan Manning saw beautifully demonstrated on a weekly basis in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In truth, these twelve-step meetings are often how the church should be but is not. We are all recovering from something. Dallas Willard even wondered to himself how much the church would gain if it incorporated the AA approach—based on Christian teachings—to vulnerability, transparency, and community. How much better it would be if we introduced ourselves at church by saying, “Hi, I’m Dallas. I’m a recovering sinner.”[11]

Even those of us who have traveled with God for many years find it hard to present to God our true selves—we run from the judgment that seeks to pardon us, or we reject the forgiveness that will free us. We perform even for Him who sees all. And sometimes we fall into a severe type of repentance to withdraw from the difficulties of living with other people. But we were not meant to hide from God or others but to come out of pitch darkness and into the light. Perhaps the problem is that many of us have been taught that repentance means to beat yourself up for being unconscionably awful. It is to be found wanting and unworthy. And sometimes repentance leads to rejection, a reality sadly reinforced by those who have heard our struggles and responded without compassion. But this is not Christian repentance, which allows us to take our full selves to Jesus. As Godric, the hermitic twelfth-century monk and title character of Frederick Buechner’s breathtaking novel, was once reminded by his assistant Reginald, “Repentance is also a turning back, a going home.”[12]

Fully Known

Lent is a time to be reminded of who we are and Who it is that has called us home. It is a reminder to confess and repent rather than hide ourselves to either self-exalt an Instagram image or self-flagellate to tame a wild beast we have no power to tame by ourselves in the first place. Lent brings us to a place to repent in community and in front of God, so that we can step out into the world in the full freedom of forgiveness and confident humility. Repentance is the act of being fully known and loved still. It is receiving mercy when we plead with Godric, “Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed.”[13] But it’s more than a dream: repentance frees us to fulfill the good that has been “dreamed” for us ahead of time, for

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

[14]

Toward the end of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan confronts a man who threatened to expose him for a secret that brought him deep shame. The revelation, Barry thought, would end his life. But then a woman unexpectedly enters his life and shows him unconditional love, not for who he pretends to be but for who he really is. And this love empowers him to confront the accuser. “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea,” Barry warns him. “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”[15] And with that, the accuser, realizing that Barry is no longer afraid of even the worst things about himself being in the open, backs down. This is the power of being known in confession and repentance. It is the power of saying goodbye to our Imposters, goodbye to the performances and the crutches, and stepping out into the world as beloved children of God. For God loves us not despite being known, but because we are fully known. And that love makes you stronger than anything you can imagine.


[1] The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939), 1:41:35.

[2] Exaltation may mean communal praise, but it need not be that. One can be exalted as someone not to be toyed with, feared, or some other trait that keeps others at a distance.

[3] Summarized version from Kathleen Korgen and Jonathan M. White, The Engaged Sociologist (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2007), 58. See also Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and Social Order (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 136ff. Special thanks to Olivia Davis for bringing this to my attention.

[4] Frederick Buechner, “Lent,” Frederick Buechner, February 26, 2019, https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2019/2/26/lent.

[5] Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2015), 28.

[6] Ibid. Emphasis added for clarity.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5, trans.Donald W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 36.

[8] Latin for confession.

[9] Ibid., 110.  

[10] Ibid., 111-12.

[11] Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 134.

[12] Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), 50.

[13] Ibid., 105.

[14] Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV.

[15] Punch-Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (New Line Cinema, Revolution Studios, and Ghoulardi Film Company, 2002), 1:35.