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Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Beauty of Awkwardness

Yesterday, I started reading Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches by William F. Buckley Jr. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, but I just never got around to it. (I have an earlier version of the one pictured on the left.) I’ve been in a reflective mood recently, so now seemed like a good time to jump into the book of sampled speeches that Buckley gave over the course of his lifetime.

Before digging in and starting at the beginning, I flipped around to get a taste of Buckley later in his life. The speeches are published chronologically so I wanted to read one of his later speeches before getting into his more youthful view of life. I know from experience that not only can views change, but delivery and tone often change as well as a person gets older and I’m more interested in who Buckley became than who he started as.

I stopped on a speech called “Towards a Recovery of Gratitude” and I read it. About half way through, Buckley talks about an experience he had in a souvenir shop in Stratford-upon-Avon when he was 13. He purchased a copy of something written by Shakespeare and when he went to pay for it, the woman behind the counter slipped in a copy of Romeo and Juliet, obviously intending it as a gift. Buckley gave her the change in his hand to pay for it and after he was outside, his music teacher, who had chaperoned him into the store, told young Buckley that he needed to learn to accept gifts because, “They are profaned by any attempt at automatic reciprocity.”

Many years later, one of Buckley’s friends emailed him one day telling him that he had developed a retrieval system for Buckley that would catalogue all of the books in Buckley’s library—something Buckley had been yearning for. The man told him, “It is yours as a belated Christmas gift.” Buckley began writing a response to ask his friend to bill him for his services, but then he stopped.

One minute later, my mind traveled back and I was again a little boy at a souvenir store in Stratford, embarrassing a kindly woman who had made an act of generosity. There and then I shed the grown-up equivalent of a thirteen-year-old’s tears at my awkwardness.

In that awkwardness, we see so many things: guilt, humility, repentance, love, appreciation, and of course, as the title of the speech suggests, gratitude. Good awkwardness, one that leads to such displays, is a beautiful thing, even though most of us would rather avoid it. It reveals the full range of our humanity without the need for words, and more importantly, it gives us pause that often leads to change.


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