Awkward is a word that's been thrown around a lot over the last few years, and has become something of a cultural obsession. As a word we may take it or leave it. But as an idea, we are drawn to it like Taylor Swift to a break-up. It’s hard to imagine our grandparents generation laughing their way through a season of Arrested Development, but for some reason we do. We love awkwardness.
Author Adam Kotsko puts it this way: “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” It’s what makes shows like The Office and Parks & Rec work. It’s what makes Judd Apatow films and pretty much every Ricky Gervais show work. It's the new horror film: laughing at the awkward experiences of others in hopes of avoiding our own.
Awkwardness may make us laugh when it comes to other people, but when it comes to ouselves it makes us paranoid and extremely self-conscious. We’re haunted by visions of friends locking eyes after a party and whispering “He's so awkward" about US. That’s why some have said that there's a new scarlet letter: “A” for “Awkward.” Socially speaking it’s actually much worse than adultery these days.
So why this love/hate relationship with awkwardness? Why does it, on the one hand, make us laugh and draw us in, yet, on the other hand, scare us to death to ever be associated with it? Because awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability. It’s an open door to share our weakness, and to let others see our shame. In other words, it’s an invitation to be human.
There's this incredibly awkward scene in Season 6 of Mad Men where Don Draper is (literally) caught with his pants down. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s by his own pre-teen daughter (Sally), who happens to unexpectedly walk in on him having sex with their downstairs neighbor (Mrs. Rosen). Needless to say, it is painful to watch.
But what is even more painful to watch is the way Don talks to Sally about it afterward. Far from admitting the truth (that Sally had caught him having an affair) he tells her instead that he had been “comforting” Mrs. Rosen in a way that she had misunderstood. He lies. The awkward moment that was an invitation for Don to be vulnerable, to admit the truth about himself and expose his shame, instead turns into him doing what we all do: covering himself up with half-truths as fragile as fig leaves.
Don’s reaction is actually eerily similar to the first awkward moment in the history of mankind, when Adam and Eve sinned against God, became ashamed of their nakedness (read weakness and vulnerability), and tried to hide themselves from the only One who fully knows them and truly loves them. Instead of walking with God in the cool of the day, they began to feel incredibly awkward around him because of their shame.
But then the Lord finds them. And instead of shaming them, he covers their shame. He takes animal skins and gets them dressed. He doesn’t reject them, but embraces them. Because by His standards, all of us are awkward. And the Lord loves awkward people, because there will never be any other kind.
Again, Adam Kotsko puts it well: “Social orders arise and perhaps evolve and eventually fall, but awkwardness will endure as long as we remain human because it is what makes us human. What Ricky Gervais and Judd Apatow point toward…is an awkwardness so awkward it becomes its own kind of grace - it is the peculiar kind of grace that allows us to break down and admit that we are finally nothing more or less than human beings who will always be stuck with each other, and, more importantly, to admit that we are glad of it.”
This is the silver lining of awkwardness. It's an invitation to admit you’re nothing more and nothing less than a human being in need of grace. It's an invitation to be vulnerable, which strangely enough is the only way to begin to be rid of shame. It's an invitation to stop pretending you have it all together, and joyfully admit that your hope isn't in your smoothness but rather in the Lord who, judging by his time on earth, loves people who know they're awkward thus keenly feel their need for Him.