If we look at an elk it is not at all like the idea of an elk. It is not cute, lissom, or elegant. It has ticks on its neck, its coat is patchy in summer, and the way it stretches its leg and looks back over its shoulder is beyond admiration. The difference between the animal and the idea is awkwardness.
To relish the imperfection of actual being is a form of integrity that is anchored in the senses. Like other happinesses, it is its own discipline. It provides a vessel for the imagination that doesn’t appear if we are just making things up without reference to the genuine strangeness of life. When we embrace awkwardness we enter our own lives. Cinderella is better prepared for the world than her stepsisters because she sweeps and sews – particular, inconvenient, unromantic activities that develop her character. From that foundation, her imagination and her naïve and discontented dreams can flow out of the little cottage and up the steps of the palace. Awkwardness is a discipline that has set her free.
In its origin, awkwardness means ‘a backward motion’, and whenever the spirit is rushing ahead and projecting out toward an ideal, a backward motion steadies us, drawing the soul in. The experience of awkwardness is twofold, beginning with a sense of shock. “This is not what I expected”, we think. Then, as we continue to gaze, we see, “But it is true, it belongs, it is more real, it amplifies me”. We find in ourselves a tenderness for what is revealed even though we did not seek it. In just this way the common griefs of life bear the enlarging sting of awkwardness to us, breaking the spell of routine consciousness. As character and steadiness deepen, what would have been a trauma at the time of the second descent becomes something to observe, a wave of the universe.
“As my father was dying I could not comprehend it. I was struck hard and I didn’t push back. Down to my toes, I did not know or understand. I went into my fear and grief and into his pain too, not with the thought of changing it, but just to go into it honestly. And I found this indigestible pain to be also very liberating. No longer outside of things, I was buoyed up by the universe. I didn’t know why he was dying, but I trusted his dying. Now that I have lost him he is everywhere and also in me. I am my father now”.
When we meet a new and difficult event we usually flee it or try to harmonise with it. What cannot be escaped or aligned with is awkwardness: the sacred grotesque in every relationship, whether with a tree, a job, or a person. When we embrace or enter that painful experience, we have the peace of someone who is in the right place in life. Even if we have just been struck or have been thrown in prison we will not suffer more than is right, because we are at peace with eternity. Awkwardness is so true that it pulls us to it, drawing us into the community of the real.