You can tell a lot about a person by what they read. I, for one, love perusing people’s bookshelves – it gives such a view into what has informed their thinking and what forms their worldview. But all bets are off in a Jesuit community.
A Jesuit community bookshelf reveals tastes that are often broad and wide. When I moved into my Jesuit community here in Minneapolis, I found the usual variety of magazines (old issues of First Things, Harper’s, and the New Yorker), trashy murder mystery novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Da Vinci Code [why??]), and the familiar volumes of Catholic poetry (Mary Oliver and Hopkins and etc.). On and on.
Buried amidst these stood a slim volume with an emerald jacket that I had never seen before: Thoughts of St. Ignatius Loyola, it was titled. Each day of the year has its own thoughtful quotation taken from a letter of the Spanish saint. I flipped around a bit and found these:
July 22: “The sharper you are at noticing other people’s failings, the more apt will you be to overlook your own.”
Uh oh, I thought, I wonder if Ignatius has been eavesdropping on my evening examens.
June 25: “Speak little, listen much.”
Easier said than done, I said to myself.
You might remember how, in my last entry, I told a story of a time when a sarcastic comment I made to my sister went too far. Thinking through that story prodded me to think a little more deeply about sarcasm and cynicism themselves, especially why those two themes are so pervasive and appealing to us (intelligent folks and believers that we are) these days.
Myself? I know I’d like to think that Ignatius Loyola might have a response – even that it might be contained in that little green book.
So I’m going to try to consider sarcasm and Ignatius response over my next couple posts.
We probably ought to start with what sarcasm is and how it surrounds us.
Sarcasm considered. Sarcasm is an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? At its best, sarcasm is a way that people use language to account for the incongruities and disappointments in the world. It seems to be the lingua franca (or at least a dialect) of many American high schoolers, college students, twenty-somethings, and beyond. It’s the language of popular TV shows and celebrated authors and columnists. Growing up with the Simpsons and Seinfeld, I find that sarcasm can become almost a default setting when first assessing a situation. Like this hapless young man on the Simpsons, we might not even know whether we’re being sarcastic any more. Though sarcasm comes easy to me, observing it in strangers can be pretty unsavory at times. Hearing the bitterness in another’s voice as they talk sometimes feels like hearing grown adults swear around children. It makes me wish people would at least give me the chance to earmuff it.
Now, to be fair… sarcasm is a pretty refined means of communicating, when you think of it. Imagine you wryly say to a friend, “What a beautiful day it is” on a crummy day. To understand this, both of you must know what a beautiful day really looks like, know what today looks like, and understand that saying the word ‘beautiful’ with a certain tone implies that you mean just the opposite.
Sarcasm feeds the hungry beast of cynicism. So sure, sarcasm can be done playfully among friends and family. But I’m also convinced that sarcasm is the mother tongue of the hyper-observant, world-weary cynic. Consider all the low-hanging fruit around that can feed one’s cynicism: national wealth and gross inequality, politicians promise one thing yet deliver another, the religious profess holiness but often live quite differently, Interest Group X, Institution Y, or Person Z is “just in it to gain power”, push their agenda, or force their beliefs on us.
Sarcasm is the refined man’s tool for pillorying one’s enemies, for conveying irritation, and creating a cool distance from the cultural currents we find repugnant. Consider the Daily Show, or a favorite snarky public forum (other than TJP, that is), or any other equally entertaining medium that points out the inconsistencies and lunacies of others. After all, they’re just calling it as they see it… right?
It might actually be right. But, I ask myself: are we left unscathed in the process? Ignatius thinks not.
November 8: “As often as we manifest others’ failings, we show up our own.”
I know it’s not November, but I bet I could read those words on nearly any day of the year and they’d fit.
I’m going to spend the next few days of my own Lent with them, and hopefully be back in a few days with a few more thoughts.