Those Who Make Them Become Like Them

If it had been any other kind of pastry, he would have been fine. But when Thomas saw the single apple danish perched on top of the pile of otherwise uninteresting carbs by the staff room, his hand stretched out to pluck it before he realized what he was doing. Besides, it wasn’t just any danish; it was from Tony’s Bakery, and it was still warm when his fingertips settled on the perfectly flaky dough. A shudder of expectant delight coursed over him.

As Thomas brought his prize toward his mouth, however, he heard a faint chime in his left ear and froze. For an instant he clung to the foolish thought that, maybe, if he didn’t move, Claudius would stay silent. But a moment later, he heard the voice that was beginning to make his skin slither.

Is this who you want to be, Thomas?

Always the same question, oozing with shame. Not, Are you sure this is a good idea? Never something so equivocal as, Maybe we should think twice about this, huh, Tommy? No, always that same question slicing across his mind: Is this who you want to be, Thomas?

With a sigh, Thomas lowered the danish but didn’t set it down.

“Hi Claudius,” he said. “Here to ruin my day again?” Thomas could never quite treat his CounselEar® as either a person or just a gadget. Like a toddler hoping to keep his toy from being confiscated, Thomas carefully tucked the decreasingly warm danish behind his back.

I’m not here to ruin anyone’s day, Thomas, Claudius said, unfazed. Sometimes, Thomas wished the AI would get a little irritated or lose its cool. But Claudius remained calm and continued speaking. I’m here to help you become your true self. Don’t you want to be the person you’re supposed to be?

Thomas pictured himself, chubby chin replaced by a chiseled jaw and Katrina on his arm with eyes only for him. “Of course,” he said.

The true self demands everything, Thomas. Do you want to be your true self?

“Yes,” Thomas said, hardly more than a whisper. But Claudius heard. He always did.

Put the pastry back, Thomas. You’ll never have her—never be who you want to be—if you’re not willing to give up everything else.

In his fantasy, he and Katrina were out to dinner now, and she was reaching out to touch his arm—his thick, muscle-rippling arm. Thomas absently put the danish back and brought his fingers to his mouth to lick off the crumbs. At once, however, the glory of Tony’s Bakery erupted on his tongue. The rich splendor of apples cooked to perfection, simmering in their juices and melding with sugar inside a pillow of buttery dough, shot from his tastebuds to his brain and raced over every nerve and fiber. A flash flood of saliva burst forth, so that his words were slippery as he snatched the danish back up and said, “Why shouldn’t I have it?”

Thomas, this isn’t who you want

“Save it, Claude,” Thomas said and whipped out his phone. He opened the CounselEar® app and watched the words temet nosce appear on the screen in a chic font. When they vanished, the menu came up, and he toggled Claudius’s settings from “Becoming the Body Women Want” to “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.” As soon as the confirmation chime sounded in his ear, Thomas shoved the phone back in his pocket and crammed too much of the danish into his mouth at once. While caramelized apple dribbled down Thomas’s chin, Claudius said, Nobody makes ‘em like Tony’s. Straight out of heaven, eh Tom?

“Mmm,” said Thomas, eyes closed and mouth in bliss. But when he went to wipe the apple from his chin, he felt the ample fat there and stopped chewing. In that moment, he knew Claudius—the first Claudius—was right. His true self was more than pastries and momentary pleasure. He wanted to be the kind of man who was desirable, who could not only get Katrina, but make her envious of how other women wanted him too.

Tossing the half-eaten danish into the waste basket, Thomas headed back to his office and switched Claudius back to the “Becoming the Body Women Want” setting along the way. The confirmation chime sounded, and he sat in his chair with a heavy whump, wincing as his belch dug into his belly.

“Why am I like this?” he asked, googling legal use of steroids while his phone was already out.

Like what, Thomas? You mean fat? It’s because you eat poorly and don’t exercise. Or did you mean single? Because it’s the same reason. You just aren’t committed to your true self.

Thomas clenched his teeth, biting off an angry reply. As much as he hated to admit it, the AI was right. Thomas had shown all the backbone of a bowl of Jell-O at the sight of his favorite pastry.

You need lots of protein and a strict exercise regimen, said Claudius. And you should watch some videos of celebrities to see their confidence and learn to imitate it. The you of right now is worthless. He’s got to die so the new you can be born in his place.

But Thomas was barely listening, too caught up in an article about steroids instead. He’d hoped he could just take a few pills and wake up with huge muscles. But even steroids took work and had scary side effects. And with every picture he scrolled past of a butch guy with a babe on his arm, he grew more and more certain he could never be one of these muscle-jerks.

Troubled, Thomas returned to the CounselEar® app and stared at the menu, thumb hovering over too many options, none of which quite resonated as him. He passed over “Creative Muse” and nearly selected “Mr. Good Deeds.” Instead, he scrolled on, passing others, then lingering over “Free Spirit.”

What’s the matter, Thomas?

He flinched, startled by Claudius’s sudden intrusion. “Huh?” Thomas asked.

Why are you scrolling through my options?

“I don’t know who I am.” Five simple worlds, spoken in honesty and without forethought, but it was as if they were his five fingers which had been desperately clinging to the side of a cliff face and had just slipped free in the moment he’d spoken those words aloud. He felt himself tumbling, horrified by the truth he’d just confessed to Claudius. He had no earthly idea who he really was.

His stomach begin to roil, and Thomas was certain he was about to see the bit of danish again in a way that would make him swear off the pastry for the rest of his life. But through the swirling terror, he heard the calm voice of Claudius say, I see. I think I may be able to help.

“No, I know how you’re programming works,” Thomas said. “Thanks for your coaching and all, but you can’t help if I don’t even know who—”

Look at your screen. The words were direct, sharp, and they severed Thomas’s sentence at once. Obediently, he looked down. There, at the very end of the list of options in the app, was a new setting, entitled simply “Thomas.”

A chill snaked along Thomas’s spine, tickling the hairs on his neck till they danced upright in a frenzy of fear. “What is this?” he asked.

It’s a new feature. It’s in beta-testing, so they don’t offer it outright, but they put it into my programming to use when I deem necessary.

“But what does it do?”

It allows me to truly coach you to be your actual authentic self. No more handholding based on the childish nonsense you think will make you happy. This is the real deal. You see, we’ve seen time and again in our data that people are very poor judges of what will make them happy.

“Glad I spent so much money on your stupid app, then.”

Stop it. Again, the words pierced him silencing him at once. He’d gotten used to Claudius bullying him, but he’d never heard this tone before. Now, as I was saying. People don’t truly know themselves. But I’ve been observing you all these weeks, and I have a vast bank of data from observing others like you—and not like you. If you select the option with your name, I’ll no longer be the pedantic, useless voice I’ve been. I’ll reveal to you the very secrets of your true self and teach you to live into them. Do you want to become that self?

Thomas tried to answer but his mouth had gone dry. He tried a swallow but could only cough instead. Guzzling a drink from his water bottle, he made to return to the question, but his phone began to ring with a call from his mom.


“You okay, Tommy? You sound a little off.”

He pressed his fingers to his eyes and considered. “I’m fine. What’s up?”

“Making sure you’re still coming for dinner.”

He’d forgotten it was Tuesday, when he normally joined them for dinner. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’m coming.” He pressed his fingers harder against his closed eyes till he saw bursts of color against the darkness.

“Great! Can you grab some Italian bread on your way over? Spaghetti night, and I want to do garlic bread but forgot to get some.”

“Sure, Mom.”

“Thanks, Tommy. Oh, and don’t forget Grandma’s here. Maybe some flowers for her?”

Thomas put his whole hand over his face now. He wished she’d reminded him about his grandmother before he’d said he could come. Some people’s grandmothers were sweet little old ladies. Others had some flair, but at least they were interesting. His grandmother, however, was not little or sweet or interesting. She was a pushy old bat who had too many thoughts about what everyone else was supposed to do.

“See you soon, Tom.”

“Okay Mom.”

“Don’t forget the bread and flowers.”


“Love you.”

“Yeah, you too. Bye.”

Thomas dropped the phone to the desk and groaned. He sat with his face buried in his hands for several seconds till Claudius brought him upright with that new voice.

Well, what do you say?

The phone lay on the desk, face-down like a dead thing. Thomas flipped it over and saw his name staring up at him from the app, beckoning him to select it.

“You really think you know about my ‘true self’?”

I know you better than you know yourself.

Thomas hovered his finger over the screen, but his boss knocked on the door, wondering why he hadn’t responded to an important email yet, and the moment was lost. The rest of the day was an unusually chaotic cluster of one problem after another with clients and coworkers. Thomas welcomed it, however, because the chaos helped drown out the echoes of his own voice proclaiming, “I don’t know who I am.”

At last, they day came to a close, and Thomas had just enough time to hurry by the store to grab bread on his way to his parents’. Only when he pulled up behind her car did he remember his grandmother was there—and that he’d forgotten the flowers. He pulled out his phone to check his messages, and Claudius pounced.

It’s time.

Thomas didn’t remember opening the CounselEar® app, but there it was on his screen, ready and waiting. He wasn’t sure why he was so apprehensive—after all, this was just another setting to try, and a beta-test at that. But he couldn’t suppress the shiver that trembled on his nape every time he thought about Claudius watching him and telling him who he really was. When he looked back up and saw his grandmother’s car again, though, he pressed his finger decisively to his name on the screen and heard the confirmation chime a moment later.

Well done, said Claudius, but that was all. Thomas got out of the car and went inside, bracing for the dinner ahead. His mom thanked him for the bread and shepherded him into the living room where Grandma waited.

“Good to see you, Thomas,” she said, offering no hug. At least she called him by his full name.

Why are you afraid of this old thing? Asked Claudius. She looks like Jack Nicholson cross-dressing.

Thomas stifled a laugh. Claudius had never done this kind of live commentary before.

“Something funny?” Grandma asked.

“No. It’s just something Claudius said.” As soon as the words left his mouth he blanched.

Grandma’s eyebrow shot up. “Who’s Claudius?”

“No one,” he said, looking away.

She crossed her arms and waited.

Go on, tell her, Claudius said.

“It’s this device, called the CounselEar,” said Thomas. “It’s an accountability thing. You set it according to your ideal true self, and it speaks to you and holds you to that and pushes you toward your goal. It’s got these amazing testimonials of people who’ve used it and—”

“Horse manure,” she cut him off.

“I … what?”

“Horse manure. Everything you just said is a load of it.”

“Right, right, I forgot that in your day parents just chose who you were supposed to be.”

She snorted. “You’re even more foolish than you look sometimes, Tom. There’s only one person who knows who you are.”

“Oh yeah, who? The person in the mirror?”

“Oh no, him least of all. I’m talking about God.”

Thomas groaned, and Claudius sniggered. I like her. Good entertainment, the AI crooned in his ear.

“God is the one who formed man out of the dust. God gave humans their purpose from the very beginning and told them to trust him alone for knowledge. Here, go on and read the last few verses of Genseis 1 and all of Genesis 2. I trust you remember where Genesis is.” She handed him a Bible pulled from God only knew where she’d hidden it.

Despite himself, he flipped open to Genesis 1.

“You want to know yourself,” Grandma said, pointing with a heavy finger for emphasis, “You gotta know the one who made you. He tells you your true purpose.”

Oh, come on, Claudius said in Thomas’s ear as he skimmed the text before him. Did God really say that he’d tell you your purpose? That’s nonsense.

But Thomas had just glanced ahead to the next chapter and felt the chill on his neck break out again as he read the words of the Serpent, “Did God really say…?”

Slowly, Thomas took Claudius from his ear, wincing at the burst of feedback as he withdrew the AI and looked soberly up at his grandmother. “Grandma,” he said. “Do you really believe God knows our true selves?”

She paused, looking him carefully in the eye and then reached out a more tender hand than he’d felt from her in years, and said, “Keep reading, Tom.”

Alden Groves is currently undertaking MDiv studies at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also serves as the Community Outreach Coordinator at New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.