By JENNY SEYLAR
Sitting in a car with a stranger can be very awkward. Believe me, I know. I had to get my car repaired and needed to take advantage of the shuttle service in order to get to work. Even though it was only a ten-minute drive from the repair shop to work, it seemed like an eternity. Once the usual introductions were made, silence fell on the space like a lead balloon. Preferring to break the silence, I searched for safe topics and discovered that we could talk about the weather and, well, the weather. If it has been hot, then the desire for coolness permeates the conversation; if it’s cold, just the opposite. Once the weather topic has exhausted itself, the return to silence and its uncomfortable demeanor settles back in.
We could be like the loveable Sheldon Cooper on the TV show “Big Bang Theory” who always comes to a car ride prepared. With list in hand, Sheldon commences with his pre-approved, safe topics intended to pass the time in the car. While Sheldon is clearly at home with this method, the other people in the car rarely are comfortable.
Why is that we feel so awkward in situations with strangers? Is it that we are afraid of sharing our true self, and instead hide behind a facade of the person we want to show others? Is revealing what lies behind the exterior mask so difficult that we keep it hidden from all but our closest allies? Guilty as charged! At times in my life I have done just that, and I am not proud to admit such a thing. It’s been one of the ways to practice self-preservation, and, unfortunately, it also limits my connection with others.
In the aftermath of my husband’s death, the facade of “being okay” seemed to go up more often than I care to admit because it was awkward for me to share anything else. The awkward feeling still returns when people hear about my husband’s death for the first time, or for those whom I have not seen since his death, and they want to offer condolences or support. Still others aren’t sure what to say to me, and so most don’t say much of anything. I get it; really I do. I live it every day, and it IS awkward. People just don’t have any idea and so they offer meaningless platitudes or search for the next opportunity to exit the scene. I, myself, often lack the words to describe the trauma that was left in the wake of his death and don’t usually know how to respond, except with a sheepish, “Thank you.”
So, back to awkward interactions with strangers or casual acquaintances. It is often difficult to engage in the small talk that seems to permeate events like graduation parties, weddings, and community festivals. So many of the topics that people find interesting as small groups gather, really have little interest to me because of the dark places my heart has been. It is challenging to build a relationship when everything seems to stay on the surface level, thwarting the desire to go deeper. It’s also very lonely when others don’t want to invest in me and what is behind the mask. But I am worth investing in because I am a beloved child of God and worthy of love.
As a person of faith, I often say that Jesus is always my friend, and is there for me even when I am lonely, and that is true. Yet the desire for human intimacy, which is what happens when we tear down the facade and delve deeper with one another, is needed, too. I long not to be lonely, and so I meet new people, share a little more with them each time we gather, and trust that what they see in me at each level (or layer…as if I were an onion….or Shrek ?) will be readily received and embraced as valuable, and not awkward. I find that it is challenging for me at first as I seek to stretch myself, then I remember that I do not go it alone: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7 ESV) I get my power from God. I trust that as people start to see the real me, some actually will and do chose to connect with the one behind the mask. These people accept me for who I am, grief and all.