A Robot On The Rocks, or The Perfect Storm, or Monsters Bawl, or We Are Phoenix

I couldn’t decide on a sufficient title. I’m still not satisfied with any of them.

“You’re in robot mode. Again.” she said with disappointment. To think things is one thing. To speak them out loud can be a completely different thing for some things which seems to transform that which could have hope into something… less. Not just less, but sorrowfully less. I suppose it’s the combination of the pause and the word “again” that spawned this transformation.

For the un-indoctrinated, robot mode is the endearing term (yes, sarcasm) my lovely wife (not sarcasm, I really think she’s lovely) uses to describe me when I’m walking around as a ghost in my own home; a hologram of my self; a shell masking the labyrinth of emptiness lying just beneath. Floating from one obligation to the next without vigor or effect or affect — alive, but only according to the scientific definition of life, yet for all intents and purposes dead; on auto-pilot. Things don’t have taste. My normally very active sense of smell goes dormant. Smiling is facade and thinking (on just about any level) is mirage. I’ve tried to figure out how this happens and so far it seems to be the apex of a distinct collection or sequence of events with impeccable timing. I suppose robot mode is a form of self preservation or a defense mechanism when I’m unable to make sense out of things; or when I’m facing questions with any number of plausibly debilitating, yet paranoia-laced answers; or when I’m coming down from an extended professional and intellectual climb upon completion of a task or project of substantial caliber — a sort of post-project depression; or when I start feeling unimportant and alone and forgotten… or worse, intentionally ignored; or when work is seeming more and more like a waste of time because my voice has been stolen by… the vacuous thieves of never-land.

We recently learned at church about Jonah. It’s such a tragically beautiful story of rebellion and restoration, forgiveness and provision. I can see why the story takes place mostly in the sea. Where else does the notion of drowning feel even more prevalent and hopeless? Sorrow and depression very much feel like the deep beckons for a moratorium on trying, and begs for an effortless downward trajectory. It’s hopelessly overwhelming. I’m reminded of stormy days when I used to surf a spot called South Garbage. Paddling out against the breakers was the embodiment of futility. Next to the ocean, there aren’t many places on this earth that are incredibly adept at stealing your progress faster than you can make some. This surf spot is at the bottom of a treacherous cliff. The reef and rocks just a few feet below the surface give the waves amazing shape and unexpected power.

Robot mode is a complex, infinite loop of overlapping, broken analyses that never resolve. I heard someone once describe jazz music this way — that it never resolves; it does not have a natural progression to a logical ending. It has to be ended. Robot mode is the jazz of whatever you call that gap between the head and the heart… you know, that place where things go when they don’t make sense. Robot mode is a reactionary state to an overflowing bucket of seemingly disconnected and senseless things. Enter melancholy, enter numbness, enter mediocrity: the leading roles in this act while fear, loathing and unjustified anger trail, no… lurk, behind. No, that’s not right… It’s more like the fear, the loathing, the resentment, the frustration and anger — all stemming from an inability to resolve things — conceal themselves in the trough of the wake of this ill-fated jazz. They ride out the numbness until the right moment when they can weave chaos and havoc onto the stage, creating prime conditions for a perfect storm.

For Jonah, the perfect storm was a literal storm that was a result of his own choices. He fled from God heading in the opposite direction from where he was told to go. The story says God sent the storm, and it affected everyone on the boat, yet Jonah slept through it until some one had to wake him up. The other people on the boat were tossing overboard everything they could think of to try to prevent the boat from getting ripped in two by the waves. Jonah explains to the others it’s his fault the storm was upon them and he tells them to throw him into the sea to die, yet God provided for him a fish. A sanctuary. A place for Jonah to have no distractions from what the real problems in his life were: himself. He was given time and space to sort through things he never would have faced otherwise. On the surface, the story seems like a bad joke. But if you peel back the layers and read what’s really going on and look past the whole giant fish or whale or sea monster or whatever, therein lies God’s incredible gifts of provision and redemption: people who were otherwise agnostic towards God see first-hand how real he is, a city full of wicked people get saved, and a broken man gets a shot at restoration.

My perfect storm arrived last week. On top of an already stressful time, all the crap I was stuck fruitlessly trying to sift through and resolve converged into one horrible moment. A defining moment for almost all of my important relationships. A defining moment for my own definition of myself. The aftermath of this incident has been and still is surreal and amazing and harrowing… an emotional melting pot. I never thought myself to be the monster; to be capable of hurting others. My birth name means “healer” and what happened last week is so far from that, it makes me sick. I don’t know what the opposite of breaking is, but this, it definitely is not. I look in the mirror and I’m shocked that my reflection looks so normal because I’m expecting to see something hideous and grotesque and repulsive. I’m expecting to see a monster on the verge of sobbing with remorse for simply just being. I’m startled that people still talk to me in a normal fashion. Undeserving is my new name. I was in such denial that I could ever be like that. Other people can be like that, but not me. I’m supposed to be invisible and blend into the walls and slip through the cracks and bring peace and … and now I feel paralyzed and humiliated in the center of the room, vulnerable, and ashamed and on another planet. I scared myself and never thought before about how much capacity I have for what happened. I’m very much aware now of my own depravity, which I’ve always been in denial about. Oh, sure, I’ve sort of always known that I needed God, but that was head knowledge. That was just information. But now, I’m experiencing something much more. Something much deeper and messier and more meaningful it makes what I grew up with seem hollow and trite and pretend.

I set into motion a chain of events last week that still have a course to complete. It will not soon be over, but has already illuminated God’s grace and mercy in my life in ways that I’ve never experienced. The relationships I jeopardized are stronger than I gave them credit for. I know what it is to read these words and absorb them as nutrients for my soul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I never noticed before how the story of Jonah abruptly ends with an open-ended and slightly rhetorical question from God; an unresolved stanza of biblical jazz. The story gets ended. I’m banking on my story to not be like that. I’m determined to not make Jonah’s mistake and wallow in self pity, arguing with God over the value of my own life (when I have no right to set my own value in the first place) essentially nullifying everything he can do through this time in my life.

As the myth of the phoenix goes: born and reborn from violent, blazing fire, out of the mess of its own ashes, it begins life again. So too, we monsters are destined to fail upwards despite ourselves, our circumstances, our denials and mistakes. We are lifted up in spite of our undeserving selves by a God who writes the stories and their endings and knows all there is to know and a God who can see around time and a God who loves so deeply he sends or allows the storms so we’ll call to him and learn from our mistakes and help each other find the right paths to travel.

As man or monster (what’s the difference?), we are phoenix — and robots must die.

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