Sarcasm Part 3: On Etymology and Jesuit Romanticism

by | Mar 1, 2012 | Blogs

The Gnashing of Teeth

Teaching in a high school as I do, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at finding myself utterly unable to get any distance from sarcasm these past few days.  Being unable to run from sarcasm, I decided to imitate Nietzsche (that great educator of Christians) and do some etymological investigation.  A few days into such and I can safely say that there’s wisdom to be found in the seeking the linguistic roots of the word “sarcasm.”

My investigations uncovered the fact that sarcasm comes from the Greek word σαρκασμός (sarkasmos), itself a form of the verb σαρκάζειν (sarkazein) which means, fittingly, to tear sarx, flesh.  Broadening that strict translation to understand the words colloquial use, we can see that sarcasm means gnashing one’s teeth, speaking bitterly.  Even further, as a manner of speech and of thought, sarcasm doesn’t leave the speaker unharmed.  Instead it embitters the one who speaks, it tears at the flesh not only of the recipient, but of the actor as well.

It seems that what we call sarcasm is the coding of the quick, snide response into our mental muscle memory.  It’s something that changes how we receive and evaluate data – and other people as well.  And in the end, sarcasm cultivates cynicism.

So why on earth is sarcasm so appealing?  Because, like Taco Bell, it’s fast, cheap and easy.  It gets a quick laugh and reduces complexities.  It allows us to distance ourselves from engaging in the tough work of laboring as a hope-filled Christian in the world.  It distracts us from facing our own demons.  Sometime sarcasm even feels fresh, independent, and authentic.

Like Taco Bell, cynicism fills us up, but it’s not all that nourishing.  And I think that’s because cynicism itself depends upon the unspoken belief that, at the end of the day, our mess of a world is irredeemable.  Either it has slipped through God’s fingers, or God doesn’t care, or – as the particularly modern cynic has concluded – there just ain’t no God after all.

Those questions can feel convincing, but are they really?  Hasn’t my own life been a testament to God’s sustaining me, in spite of my imperfect self?  Why do I forget that so easily?

An Ignatian response.  As we slip more and more deeply into Lent, let’s consider how our minds jump to giving things up.  “No more meat, cigarettes or Facebook” we say.  Or if you’re like a former colleague of mine, “No starfruit or pomegranates this Lent.”  (God love your discipline, Jim!)

Fasting from external things is a great way to be intentional in how we use God’s creation.  But a recent Gospel passage from Mark reminded me that while abstention, giving things up, can be beneficial, Jesus was more often concerned with action, with the stuff that spills forth from our hearts.  He said:

“But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him.
From within the man, from his heart,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.” (Mark 7)

What if this Lent we spent time focusing more on what comes out than what goes in?

Looking back at Ignatius’ little emerald book, I come across this:

July 10:  “When the devil instills into your mind mean and petty thoughts, turn your memory to the benefits God has shown you in times past.”

Ignatius encourages us to store up memory of consolations and graces.  What if this Lent I were to push back on that easy tendency to overlook the good by recalling all the good things God has done to sustain me?

I turn the page once more, this time finding:

June 26:  “Those who carry God in their hearts bear heaven with them, wherever they go.”

Becoming a romantic. St. Ignatius Loyola was a romantic, but he was no fool.  A Jesuit friend of mine once quipped (rather brilliantly, I think) that “a romantic is just a disillusioned cynic.”

I think this captures Ignatius.  He knew well the sins and incongruities of the world, and yet the more he understood God’s love for him, the more he felt called to love the world.  And let me be clear, by “love the world,” I don’t mean taking the dilettante’s swig from every cultural font within reach.  I mean that Ignatius really learned to see the world in light of the God-made-man Jesus Christ, and I’m pretty sure he loved the world.

But to love and labor in the world requires some familiarity with different cultural fonts. Although perhaps a sip is in order.  My fellow TJPer Jake Martin, SJ once mused that being able to be playfully sarcastic with his students was sometimes an entrée to a deeper spiritual conversation.  It’s a sip of sarcasm, like saying to them, “I get it; I can talk on this level, too.”  The risk is becoming prickly with sarcasm as the cynicism it can cause takes root in one’s heart.  But the reward is that we can then dig deeper, having cleared the thorny thicket of sarcasm and its hidden cynical roots.

Ignatius again:

July 6: “To do many things and to mix with many people, yet not to turn aside from either God or oneself, is a great and rare art.”

Jesuit Sarcasm

Reading lines like this from Ignatius help me want to make peace with sarcasm, all without letting it become my mother tongue.  Put another way, I hope I can use sarcasm without letting it have the final word on the state of my heart.

Sometimes religious people speak of the Kingdom of God as “already and not yet.”  Already in that we have gotten glimpses of what life with God looks like.  Not yet in that our world, its priorities, and we ourselves are definitely not yet where they ought to be.

Ignatius famously challenged his companions to “Go and Set the World on Fire.”   He’s paraphrasing Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49).  Both of them get the unsavory realities of the world, but refuse to be wearied by them.  On the contrary, they were spurred to greater love and action – like any disillusioned cynic-turn-romantic should be.

The life of faith has a way of chipping away at world-weary cynicism.  In fits and starts, we become courageous romantics without putting on a blindfold to reality.  As for me, I want to live in the world as a romantic, because life’s too short to let cynicism rule the day.

St. Ignatius… pray for us.