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Chapter 4: self: Virtues of Character

How to Be Clumsy

Our own clumsiness can feel like one of the most shameful things about us. On returning a carton to the fridge, we trip and spill orange juice down our whole front. It goes into our shoes too, even the inside lining of the soles are soaked in orange pulp. It’s a good ten minutes and a few towels before we’ve changed out of all our clothes, even our underwear, and cleaned ourselves up. We feel three-and-a-half years old; when are we going to grow into the adults we supposedly are?

If only this were the only such incident! But clumsiness may stalk us everywhere: a month ago, we badly bruised our knee against a door, then we spilled blueberries over the kitchen floor and recently we went around for a day not noticing there was a piece of lettuce coating one of our teeth.

We’re furious with, and ashamed of ourselves. Our clumsiness violates our self-image as competent grown-ups.

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There’s a Yiddish word that artfully evokes the extent of our stupidity. The clumsy person is, in Yiddish, a Klutz – a dunderhead, a blockhead, a fool. It’s the inner Klutz who makes us drop plates, who walks into doors and who didn’t remember to do up its flies.

It’s normal to hate our Klutz and, with a grim face, to try to deny it’s even really there inside us. Instead, we strive to hold on to our dignity and, when we can, presume that the Klutz has gone away for good. When we do meet with it, it’s always with horror, agitation and humiliation. We thought we had left the Klutz behind, somewhere in childhood, but no; it’s still here, getting us to drop our phone in the toilet bowl and forget an important person’s name at a party.

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But there would be another less explored option: to make friends with our Inner Klutz. Not to keep denying that it really exists but to face up to it head on, in good time. We should accept, without rancour or fury, that we simply are, at one level, Klutzes who knock things over, spill drinks and make fools of ourselves in small and large ways. This is only a humiliation if we insist that the only way to be acceptable is to exhibit constant competence. Once we accept that we are Klutzes through and through, one more spilt drink won’t need to discomfort us much further.

What particularly humiliates us at moments of clumsiness is the impression that we’re all alone with our ineptness. We wouldn’t mind being clumsy if everyone was too. But they don’t seem to be. We appear to have been singled out as the greatest Klutzes we have ever met. Far from it: we simply don’t see the clumsiness of others as we do our own, because it happens in private and is carefully edited out of public life.

It’s not surprising that, in comedy shows, there is such a widespread appetite for watching people fall off their bikes or walk into lampposts. We feel so relieved by evidence that clumsiness is not ours alone. It may look as if we’re mocking. Really we are delighted to have found people as absurd as we are. The comedy show invites us to see our own clumsiness as part of a collective foolishness, not a private tragedy.

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We can also see that our own clumsiness is not what sets us apart from others but what we share (in secret) with everyone. We can accommodate our idiocy more sweetly inside ourselves by trusting, at last, that it is entirely normal and universal; that it is a factor to be understood and forgiven in ourselves because it should be understood and forgiven in everyone.

The next time we spill something down our front, we shouldn’t feel a hot prickly rage; we should greet our inner Klutz like an old familiar friend: with a warm, indulgent smile of recognition.

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