Sarcasm Part 1: On Discerning Love, Valentine’s Day, and the Danger of Sarcasm

Sarcasm strikes again

My mind has forgotten, or blissfully blocked, the sarcastic comment that prompted her words.  I may never recall what I said to her, but I sure remember my sister’s response.  It cut like a knife: “And you’re studying to be a priest?”

***

All Jesuit novices undergo a battery of “experiments” – assignments that test our mettle and help us grow in interior freedom.  The 30-day pilgrimage (with $35 and a one-way bus ticket) was a challenge for me, as was the five-week stint working at a Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haïti.   But maybe the most challenging experiment (certainly the most surprising) was the one called “home visit” – the first time I got to back to my old home to be with my family.

What I thought would be a nice respite from the relentless Jesuit formation (Woo-hoo! Vacation from growing!) turned out to be another profound and subtle opportunity to learn of my need for constant conversion.

In his novel You Can’t Go Home Again Thomas Wolfe wrote that “you can’t go back to your childhood, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting.”  Like a freshman in college returning for his first Christmas break, I headed home after months in the novitiate thinking that I was a new, freer man.  After deepening my prayer and growing in what we Jesuits call discreta caritas – a discerning love – I figured that I had attained a higher spiritual plane of perfection, free of that inner bile that spews forth sarcasm and put-downs.

And then I got home.

And my family went out to dinner.

And, with due respect to Mr. Wolfe, I returned to the old forms and systems of things.

Now, keep in mind that my siblings and I have always enjoyed teasing each other.  And there is certainly a great deal of love underpinning all our playful ribbing.  But in the inevitable escalation of trying to out-zing one another, I had said something to my younger sister that caused her to drop her fork, turn her hurt face towards me, and say:

“And you’re studying to be a priest?”

***

The power of words – power to build up, power to tear down.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Whatever I said to my dear sister, I’ve since forgotten (and I hope she has, too).  But I still remember the way I made her feel that night over dinner.  It makes me shudder.

Now I don’t hate myself for what I did.  Nor am I making some Pollyannaish plea that we somehow be better if we sugarcoated our world’s “real problems.”  Nor do I think that feelings are the most important part of us, something to be idolized and indulged at the expense of truth.  Nor do I foresee the four Simmons children ceasing their teasing anytime soon.

But in this instance, my sarcasm, my desire to be the funniest, the wittiest, went too far.  The way I intended the comment (“Zing! Gotcha!”), and how it was received, (“This is what spews forth from the heart of someone who aspires to be close to God?”), were oceans apart.  I could seen in her face that no amount of rationalizing – “Hey, I was just being sarcastic…” would sooth this sting (more on Sarcasm in Part II of this, to be posted in the next few days).

I learned again that evening that the road to greater love and life in God is paved with successes to be sure, but it’s also paved with failures.  A good thing to remember this Valentine’s Day, no?

I learned again that this discreta caritas, this discerning love, is a much harder interior attitude to maintain in our world than I sometimes think it should be.

And part of what makes it so hard is that it involves other people.  What is intended, what is received – they can be very different things.  And the whole “who’s-doing-the-saying” can make matters both better and worse.  Are all my comments necessary?  What is my intention in pointing out someone’s foibles?

All of this poignancy and self-recrimination leads me to two lessons learned, lessons appropriate for the way St. Valentine is misused in our time.

One, I’m in constant need of growth in discreta caritas – in prudence about what I say, write, text, etc.

Two, and more concretely, I need to forgive others, especially those whose words or deeds have hurt me in the past.  I pray that my sister has overcome whatever sting she felt that evening on my first home visit, because I did not intend to hurt her.  For that same reason, I need to free others from the prison cell I lock them in in my mind because of hurts they may have caused.  This thing we call Christian love is a little trickier than the sweet stuff in Valentine’s Day cards, no?

***

The rest of my week home with family went fine.  Like the college frosh returning home to find his old room was not quite as he left it, I noticed that some things had changed at home and some had stayed the same.

But far from being a vacation from my formation, my first home visit was a reminder that the road to discerning love is long and winding.  God transforms even our misstep, points us back on the right path, if we are but attentive to the invitation.

I dedicate this entry to my sister, whose birthday is Valentine’s Day.

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