When You Can Only See the World With Sarcasm

by Faith & Life, Meaning of Suffering, World's View

In the interest of full disclosure, before I begin, I need to make a confession to Catholic-Link readers: I am in rehab. No, hang on, not THAT kind of rehab… This is no tale of medicinal or hallucinatory substance abuse. No addiction, no doctors, no therapists, no support group. Dear reader, I am undergoing a rehabilitation out of sarcasm.

In some ways, upon my conversion, like a lightning bolt I was zapped with an almost instantaneous antidote to sarcasm. But in other ways, it remains a process, one which demands ongoing vigilance – vigilance to guard my heart, for in it are the sources of life.

Mind you, I’m certain I didn’t stand out as extreme. Sarcasm was simply my language and I spoke it like a child learns to speak her native tongue – automatically and unselfconsciously. It was my default setting, a personal fault – my flawed nature – and I needed to be re-wired on the inside.


But another influence, in some ways more sinister, comes from the outside… from the environment and messages around me from my earliest awareness – my flawed nurture.

Maybe you can relate? SARCASM IS OUR WATER; and not only have we been swimming in it since birth like the fish in the video, but our water gets wetter and more sarcastic every day.

While it’s catchy and well-produced, dusted with truths, there are two fundamental errors in the message of This is Water:

1. However poignant and resonant, the video views the world through a lens of sarcasm; and,

2. Through this cloudy lens, it can only offer a weak solution to the problem: a half-philosophy, not fully formed, neither satisfying nor sustainable in the long-term.

The lens of sarcasm:

It’s so pervasive, we don’t even recognize it for what it is, but it colors our outlook even when we aren’t consciously trying to be sarcastic. Ever watch old black and white movies? Or listen to old folk songs? Notice their innocence? Can’t relate? – That’s because it’s not our water. Compare the attitudes and particularly the style of humor to what we see in the music, movies – especially comedy, the writing and even the advertising of our own day. We are coarsened and clenched, and we don’t even notice most of the time.

What it is:

We live in an age of lost innocence, and sarcasm is actually a natural human response to what we perceive as absurdity and meaninglessness of “average adult days” (sincere themes rampant in This Is Water). In describing the inane, the annoying, the ridiculous of “adult American life,” the narrator’s sharp wit is entertaining and evocative, and he’s speaking our language.

We’re in on the joke – we, the audience of graduates of a prestigious college, the beautiful man and woman suffering indignities and rudeness from in-the-way zombies. The narrator identifies things about modern life – true things – that are common to the human experience, and like him, we seek to make meaning out of them. But his truths are true with a sting, even when the sting is self-directed. Sarcasm is a plank in our eyes, and we’re rolling our eyes at the world. In This is Water, we observe and interpret from a perch of superiority, even as we suffer.

Why it’s dangerous:

Sarcasm is a protective layer – an armor disguised as humor. Alas, it’s not helpful or hopeful. Instead, it is ever so snide, couched in wit… maybe not scathing, but certainly condescending. Not only is it a shield, but it is also the default grammar of our social interactions and our popular culture, giving us a shared language with peers, a tool to connect.

But the Church in her wisdom reminds us that “protected connection” is a misnomer and a false good. We cannot simultaneously harden our hearts and connect in a truly fulfilling way. It is sterile and even suspicious of the other. It is pretense. Sarcasm stunts those most gratifying human experiences of wonder and joy and gratitude. When we slip into cynicism, we become unable to love.

Indeed, in our post-modern age, confronted by a broken world, it might seem like there are two alternative lenses on life. If we’re paying attention at all, we may go one of two ways: We may cave into despair, or – to cope – we may try to make light of our despair by choosing sarcasm. Might as well laugh about it, right? But no – this is a false choice!

A half-philosophy – missing the key to the hole in the world:

My heart aches because I can relate to the narrator of This Is Water. I used to see through that all-too-familiar lens – a lens that despairs, then bucks itself up through sheer force of will. The speaker draws us in with his witty descriptions of those annoying, sometimes agonizing encounters with ugliness and banality. Then, as if snapping out of a daze, he reminds us all that WE are not the center of the universe, and that the strangers around us may be aching too. So far, so good.

But this is where his solution falters: In his quest to overcome despair, he resorts to the power of his own intellect – his education and awareness. The narrator contrives a fantasy, a mental exercise to trick his own sadness: Maybe that woman’s husband has cancer. Maybe the only way she can drive at all is in an ocean-liner sized SUV. Maybe I need to cut them all some slack and remind myself that I get to decide what has meaning.

Painfully close, yet so far away. He wants to share in humanity. He calls out his own selfishness. He is desperate to find hope. But all he sees are neon lights and “consumer-hell” and mobs and a culture of death – we too have seen it, and it’s awful. Still, even his stab at peace is loaded down in an imaginary narrative of dread. Must we imagine worst-case scenarios of our antagonizers in order to put up with them?

Most telling of all, at length he even borrows the very language of the vertical:

“…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical one-ness of all things deep down.”

[Cue the record screech. Just kidding.]

Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true. The only thing that’s Capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. He grazes the flame… but he self-ejects through the escape hatch. He was always only joking anyway. That sarcastic, witty plank in the eye…

Oh, but if only you could see! Yes, we do get to decide how we’re going to try to see it – yes. But we are not left to our own devices. We are not charged with rescuing ourselves from the vortex! What human could? If only he could see THE THIRD WAY…

He closes:

“This, I submit, is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race. The constant, gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

There it is – that glimmer. “The constant, gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” Alas, our narrator has flirted with faith, to complement his wonderful faculty of reason, but tragically he cannot bridge the gap. His infinite thing remains unnamed, disembodied, vaguely wrapped up in an idealization of “awareness” and intellect.

So, you see, it is not a choice between despair or sarcasm we are faced with when we open our eyes to behold our broken world. No. There is a third way. The third way is infinite. It is Goodness and Beauty and Capital-T Truth all at the same time. And it is not disembodied. On the contrary, it has a most definite shape. It is the shape of a Man.

He is extending out His hand, reaching out to us, our lifeline to escape from drowning in the water of this valley of tears.

“With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life” ~ Proverbs, 4:23

Questions for discussion:

1. What is the difference between guarding your heart in Proverbs and coarsening your exterior in sarcasm?

2. Where and when are you most vulnerable to sarcasm? Can you be more careful in avoiding it?

3. How can we cultivate wonder while still protecting ourselves from the harshness of the world?

Be Ready for the Eucharistic Congress!


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