Frequently, during my shifts as a Crisis Counselor where a texter will accuse me of being a robot, or question whether the person they’re talking to on the other side of their phone is a robot. I remember my reaction: I made typos and started to talk in less professional language to ascertain my texter that I was an actual human being.
I am trained to talk to people in crisis in a professional yet caring way. However, sometimes I wonder if being professional means not allowing yourself to act like a human being with emotions. Especially when I counsel through the Internet and can’t even show my face, I run the risk of trying to be a robot.
I feel sometimes that we’re trying to be robots in other parts of our lives too. We try to be productivity machines all the time and not give ourselves time to rest or feel. In a capitalist society where our value is determined by how much we can produce and our outputs, it’s difficult to not want to be a robot. It’s difficult to not want to be someone who can study or work all day and still have energy later to keep that production going.
A pursuit of perfection is also like trying to become a robot. By definition, human beings are not perfect. Human beings are not God. And yet we deny ourselves grace all the time. We don’t allow our flaws, and sometimes we don’t even allow our own opinions and emotions.
For example, I couldn’t muster the motivation or energy to write today until 10 p.m. That isn’t to say I was busy, because during my time off due to the Coronavirus, I have all the time in the world. And yet I just couldn’t. I laid in bed, ate, watched Netflix, and played video games. I spent all day feeling like shit about myself because I wasn’t writing and wasn’t being productive. I didn’t know that what I was feeling was just normal and that I don’t have to live by a regimented schedule.
And that pattern replays itself all throughout my life. In college, as separated as I am now, any time I wasn’t doing work I perceived as time wasted. I sacrificed a social life, sleep, and my personal life for my academics and athletics, not allowing myself any sort of balance with anything else.
When I run, I check my watch very religiously. I don’t allow myself to get lost in the moment and just enjoy what I’m doing and just run, but rather have to know what pace I’m running at all times, what time I’m at, and how much longer I have to go. Running has largely lost its joy for me when it is so regimented and structured.
I prefer life to be an art to a science. When it’s a science, everything can be boiled down to some sort of formula or procedure. It feels like a technical process of following steps to get the perfect product. I will always remember my days in the organic chemistry lab, where I worked on purifying my products through column chromatography, increasingly frustrated at how many of my reactions failed and how my yields were always below 50%. Any chemist can tell you that those are horrifying results that you would never want to show to your boss.
I was three years younger, yet I couldn’t help but see the fact that my reactions kept failing as a broader reflection on my own aptitude as a scientist. I was a failure. I not only couldn’t get it perfect, but I couldn’t get it right either. It was that experience that taught me that after college, I never wanted to work in a lab again.
I’m sure that my colleagues and mentors in the lab would call it an art rather than a science, where they can infuse their own creativity and humanity to their craft. For me, I didn’t see that perspective. I saw myself as a sort of lab rat and robot that just followed the rules and procedures to guarantee some sort of perfect result.
Instead of trying to always do or say the right thing, why don’t we say the authentic thing? Why aren’t we more honest with how we feel?
I have always struggled to comfort afflicted and grieving friends who are struggling. I don’t want to say the wrong thing that would offend them, and I’m resigned to just listen — and that’s fine. One of my friends has been very depressed for several weeks because of a breakup with a long-term boyfriend, and I have enough wisdom now to recognize my limitations. I cannot snap her out of her depression. I can only be the friend who can listen, who can express how much it hurts me personally to see her in so much pain.
The younger version of me was a lot more robotic. In middle school, a classmate asked me if I felt or showed any emotions. I was so guarded and on edge all the time, afraid to piss someone off or lose the respect of someone. As the quiet kid, I never spoke up for what I felt or needed because I was always trying to impress someone. The pattern would repeat itself quite a bit in high school, but it was writing that got me to open up more. I found friends that loved me and accepted me for who I was, and yet I still was pretty closed off and shy as a person.
I know now that you can’t force change. We don’t change. We grow, and growth is a process that happens like a staircase, in spurts and gradually, rather than abruptly.
Yes, all of us do need structure in our lives. But sometimes we have to let that structure can feel suffocating. As a teacher, I often hear that kids crave structure about everything else. That statement is something I’m not so sure about, especially as a non-black teacher teaching in an almost completely black school. I know what I’m trying to do with traditional pedagogy-oriented classroom management — treat the kids to act like robots. Have them sit in seats and do their works silently and independently the entire class period.
It’s bad enough to try to impose prison guard like expectations on myself, but on children? I feel very conflicted — I do what I need to survive and do as told by expectations of people above me, but what if the way I’m acting is denying people their humanity?
Compared to my classroom, the way I treat my friends and family in my personal life is much better. I’m there for them. I don’t expect them to be robots. I’m understanding, kind, and give people the benefit of the doubt, acting as much as a child of God as I possibly can.
Why don’t I allow myself that same grace? Why don’t I give that same grace to my kids?
I’m not going to blame the system or capitalism as an excuse for feeling boxed in and not in control. The truth is that if I want to stand by what I believe God wants me to do and what I believe is right, I’m going to have to make people unhappy. I’m going to have to take risks. And part of that means making my own expectation of being a robot cast away — that I will never be the person I envisioned.
Sometimes, God will not give us the life we envisioned for good for a better life we never imagined that was great. That means a life that’s not defined by wealth, reputation, or accomplishments, but a life where we can feel loved and fully embrace what it means to be human, not a robot.
Originally published on April 1, 2020 on Invisible Illness
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