In Praise of Awkward
Updated: Sep 16
Yesterday I attempted to make small talk in the change room of my yoga studio with a person who was washing their hands beside me. Impulsively, I tried to make a joke, which they clearly didn’t get based on the silence that followed…. Or, maybe they didn’t hear it, since I was so awkward in my delivery: I am pretty sure I was mumbling. Needless to say, my attempt to connect didn’t work out so well. As they walked away, I stood at the sink in the empty change room. I felt my heart beating and a bit of jitters flow through my body. I looked in the mirror and smiled at myself, with all my awkwardness. I breathed and sighed, “Way to go, Roxy.” (I am pretty sure I even said this out loud.) “You tried.”
It’s exactly this sort of awkwardness that I have been celebrating lately, as I experience it in both my own life, and witness it in the people I interact with on a daily basis. I’m learning to see these moments of awkwardness as moments of courage and beauty because of the way they open one up to possibilities that are found outside of our control and within the realm of uncertainty. (Side note: the best place to notice the beauty of awkwardness is middle school, in case you want to go looking…)
But awkwardness is often seen as a negative experience. It is a phenomenon that many of us believe we wouldn’t have if we were more confident, “with it”, or capable people. It’s a physical sensation that we don’t usually enjoy and avoid experiencing because of how uncomfortable it is. Sometimes we get tongue tied, or we sweat, or look away, or make poorly timed jokes (that’s what I tend to do). We feel a little out of sorts. And this makes sense because awkwardness is an experience of not knowing. We feel this way because we can’t predict or prepare for the present moment and this can bring up insecurities about ourselves as well. But it’s precisely because we can’t prepare for the moment well that allows room for us to grow and increase our capacity to engage in new and more complex situations. It opens up the possibility of living in “ever widening circles”, as Rilke would say.
Not only does awkwardness widen our circle, it also helps us move internally towards new frameworks or ways of seeing and thinking about our experience and the world around us. Karen Wegela talks about awkwardness as a precondition to accessing (even momentarily) the Buddhist concept of Brilliant Sanity. Brilliant Sanity refers to “the inherent, natural qualities of the mind, which are identified as spaciousness, clarity, and compassion.” (Wegela, 2009 43) These qualities of the mind are always with us, and we can touch into them whenever we want to. Wegela suggests that experiences of awkwardness help move us closer to brilliant sanity.
I love this. I love the way that our understanding of sanity gets tossed around with Wegela’s suggestion. Sanity is not born out of calm, tranquil, static spaces, but rather out of clumsy, dynamic, and even corny moments or experiences. And through these awkward moments, we come to a deeper sanity about life, relationships, and ourselves.
After that same yoga class, I stopped at a coffee shop before going to work. While I was waiting to order, someone came into the line up behind me. Standing a little closer to me than I expected, I could hear them mumbling in a similar way I had been earlier in the changeroom. They were muttering about what pastry to get. I recognized in them that same awkwardness that I had earlier and I turned toward them. “There’s so many options to choose from, aren't there?” Their face lit up and their body stood up a little taller. “Yes! I usually get the quiche but I’m not sure about it today. What do you recommend?”
Wegela, Karen Kissel. 2009. The Courage to Be Present: Buddism, Psychotherapy, and the Awakening of Natural Wisdom. Shambhala Publications.