A Review of
You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass):
Embracing the Emotions, Habits, and Mystery That Make You You
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Like a zesty, experimental recipe, the new book from Mike McHargue (aka. “Science Mike”) includes some surprising ingredients. Part memoir, part cultural commentary, part introduction to evolution and brain science, and yes, part inspirational self-help (though McHargue would be loathe to apply that label), You’re A Miracle, is a wide-ranging work. But do the disparate elements cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts?
For the uninitiated, McHargue is a popular podcaster and speaker, particularly known for his role in the Liturgists podcast and “Ask Science Mike.” His first book, Finding God in the Waves, chronicled his own journey through a thorough deconstruction of his fundamentalist-evangelical faith background, a deep exploration of science, and entry into a progressive, mystical-contemplative form of Christianity. His work has resonated with many who have struggled to process their own conservative, religious backgrounds in the face of modern science, but plenty of atheists and “nones” have also found comfort in his kind demeanor and thoughtful approach to big questions. You’re A Miracle, is his second book, and doesn’t introduce any major changes to McHargue’s platform or perspective, but is, surprisingly, his most deeply personal publication yet.
The personal nature comes through most clearly in the memoir elements of the book, and without revealing any of the twists and turns of McHargue’s story, the reader should know that his writing is raw, honest, and quite emotional at times. Those who gravitate to more-personal, confessional writing will find plenty of it here, and those who come to this, only looking for interesting science writing should know that McHargue’s story is an important element of this book.
Self-acceptance is a profound theme of You’re A Miracle. McHargue writes:
My successes and failures all have something in common. Each of them has been a chapter in a much larger project: a multi-decade journey to arrive at something far more precious, but also much harder to measure and market. I like me. I don’t just tolerate me, or accept me. I like me. In fact, I love me. I am a huge fan of me, from the way I mispronounce words to the hair on my back.
This focus on self-acceptance is traced through his own story, and takes second-seat to the science writing throughout, which is primarily employed to support the notion of loving oneself. This goal of the book is made explicit:
This is a book about you learning that you are a miracle too. I want to start you on a journey that ends with you looking in the mirror one day, unable to hold back tears, because instead of seeing someone who isn’t tall, thin, young, or attractive enough, you instead see a profound and rare being who is worthy of love. I want you to see yourself and be awed, because you are truly awesome. And I mean awesome in the cosmic sense, not the cultural one.
While the previous paragraph may read like pop-psychology or self-help advice, McHargue takes great pains to assure the reader that he isn’t interested in providing shallow, simplistic tools or easy answers. It’s at this point that his keen ability to synthesize and summarize scientific writing lends more depth to his work. To this end, each chapter addresses different scientific and psychological ideas. Such discussions include: the evolution of the brain, supernormal stimuli, Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), neurocognition, linguistics, artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioral therapy.
McHargue is a winsome personality, and a masterful communicator, both of which are on full display in Miracle. He is able to write about complicated scientific and psychological concepts, like brain structure or AEDP, in such a way that the completely uninformed reader is able to easily grasp. He does so by drawing on a deep well of academic writing, appealing to the emotions of the reader, as well as employing a sharp sense of humor. There is some seriously funny writing to be found here! Those looking for approachable introductions to the concepts listed above will delight in McHargue’s light-hearted and informed explanations.
Any book, however, that purports to cover so much ground, while remaining short (in page count) and introductory (in style) is bound to have some limitations. While McHargue writes eloquently about “consciousness” as an important aspect of human cognition, as well as its appearance in the timeline of evolutionary history (the reader should know that McHargue assumes a biological-evolutionary account of the world; those looking for a debate or defense of that perspective won’t find it here), there isn’t any exploration of the philosophical quandary behind the question of consciousness. Questions like, “Why do humans seem to be the only ‘conscious’ creatures on earth?” and “Where did consciousness come from, exactly?” are not addressed, perhaps because of their thoroughly philosophical nature, and thus beyond the scope of the book. Also, the cost of providing so many summaries of different scientific-psychological ideas, each of which could comprise an entire book, is that no single topic is given deep reflection. Wisely, McHargue provides “further reading” suggestions at the end of the book for those who want to chase down any individual topic that interests them.
Finally, those who are interested in more religious-philosophical-theological reflection, especially readers who enjoyed those aspects of Finding God in the Waves, will not find it here. This is not a flaw of the book, per se, but is worth noting for those who are expecting it.
Overall, McHargue has produced in You’re a Miracle an emotionally-rich, honest, and courageous book, composed of gripping, personal stories and sharp, informative scientific writing. These elements are combined with a deft hand, and do result in a text that is sure to encourage readers who are interested in what brain science, evolutionary thought, and psychology can teach us today about the complicated experience of being an emotional, anxious, and self-obsessed human being:
My friends: we are always in process. This book is not about being some finished product, some enlightened soul who transcends pain and loss, and always sends a thoughtful thank-you note. No, this book says you are a miracle, because like me you survive all this and worse, and you are still here.