As a nurse, I do awkward situations for a living—the delirious patient who thinks I have spiders crawling all over me. The menopausal woman who bursts into tears for no apparent reason. The adult with dementia who refuses to put clothes on. I see, hear, and smell things that are neither normal nor enjoyable. As a new nurse, sometimes the situations were so uncomfortable that everything in me wanted to turn and run. However, escape wasn’t an option. Behind the situation was a person who needed help.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about awkwardness. What is it? How should Christians think about it? What can be done to relieve it? My musings have helped me as a nurse, and they have helped me to love better as a member of the church. In this article, I’ll briefly unpack the concept of awkwardness, and I’ll explore some practical, biblical antidotes.
What Makes Awkwardness Awkward
Dictionaries define this term as:“causing embarrassment” or “resulting from lack of social poise”. According to our scholarly friends at Urban Dictionary, awkward is: “When something weird or embarrassing happens, and there's that silence after it. No one really knows what to say . . . Just back slowly away…”
In embarrassing situations, something is usually a little bit “wrong.” If there were a crisis, we’d feel responsible to help. If a person were choking, we would start the Heimlich. If the room were on fire, we would grab the extinguisher. However, when something is just slightly “off”, we head for the door. When we encounter someone who smells funny or misses social cues, we politely back away.
To an extent, the feeling of awkwardness is based on truth. When sin entered the world, it ushered in all forms of relational dissonance. Humanity no longer shares a universal and intrinsically-understood social code. People differ in their expectations for humor, privacy, personal space, etc. Worse yet, people fail to live up to even their own expectations for social poise, let alone expectations of others. When we or those around us make a social faux pas, the image of God in us squirms a bit. Subconsciously, we know these situations would have never occurred if sin had not entered the world.
While feelings of interpersonal discomfort may be based on truth, there is greater truth our feelings must be rooted in. Awkwardness is not intrinsically immoral. It is actually a relatively benign (but distressing) consequence of the fall. When Jesus came into the world, He willingly died to save people from their biggest problem: sin. Yet in the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus had to reckon with the awkwardness of broken humanity. Instead of pushing embarrassing situations away, he welcomed them. He willingly spoke with the adulterous woman at the well (John 4:7-30). Against all convention of the day, He let His feet be washed by the hair of a Jewish woman (John 12:1-8). While Jesus’ death was so much more than awkward, it was certainly nothing less than terribly awkward. Jesus understood that loving people meant loving through the awkward.
How should we respond Christianly to awkward situations in the life of the church?
-We need to retrain our instincts. For most of us, escape is our reflexive response to any relational discomfort. While leaving the situation is sometimes appropriate, it should not be our default. Behind the situation is a person who needs love. Instead of looking for an escape, train yourself to hang in there, step closer, and choose love over social comfort.
-We need to shift our sphere of consciousness. Forget about yourself. Think about the other person. What might the other person be thinking and feeling? What do they need most in this situation? How can we help provide what is needed?
In my work, if I realize the other person seems embarrassed, I often find it helpful to name the elephant in the room: “Hey, I know you didn’t choose for circumstances to play out like this, but I want you to know that together we’re going to get you through this.” If the other person is oblivious to the dynamics of the situation, I don’t burden them by mentioning my discomfort. When appropriate, I use humor to diffuse the uneasiness. For example, if someone makes a social blunder, I might share a story of the time I did something similar. I usually have plenty of examples to choose from! Above all, I train myself to focus on the person over the peripherals. For example, if someone has an unsightly facial scar, I train my gaze to look into the person’s eyes, not at the scar (the other person can tell the difference!)
Selfless service is a wonderful cure for the awkward. As I shift my focus to the needs of others, the less I notice my own unease. Some of the kindest thank you notes I’ve received over the years have come from patients with incredibly awkward problems or family situations. From these notes, it seems the patient forgot the uncomfortable details of the situation, but it’s clear they remembered the care they received. So also, your genuine love for others in the church can help them to relax and enjoy fellowship as it is meant to be enjoyed.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the key to surviving awkward moments is really the key to the rest of Christian living: forgetting personal comfort and choosing selfless service. Earthly awkwardness is temporary. In the new creation, all human interactions will be smooth, coordinated, perfectly nuanced, and utterly delightful. Until then, may we learn to love through the awkward.