“When she was young, she thought sarcasm was the sign of true wit.”

“But as she aged, she realized that sarcasm was just easy and lazy, and more damaging than enlightening.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about sarcasm lately, since it’s been such a dear friend of mine over the years.
–See that? Putting such in italics? I can even write in sarcasm! irony mark
(Back in the 19th century they even experimented with a sarcasm/irony mark as above. Can’t find it on my keyboard, though.)

Sarcasm is everywhere, and in meme form, it’s a virtual epidemic. (Just try searching on Pinterest for Sarcasm, then stand back and shield yourself!)


Then . . . I heard the sentiment above, that sarcasm is just easy and lazy and damaging.

And I thought . . . Oops.

Good old Wikipedia gave me more insight (and I mean that sincerely—I DO like Wikipedia, no snark intended). Look at the meaning:
The word comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmos) which is taken from the word σαρκάζειν meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer”.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcasm)

Tear the flesh?! No, I don’t mean to do that! I just mean to be a bit snarky, but validate it by saying I was only being sarcastic . . .

“Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it.”
That’s from Thomas Carlyle.
That’s piercing me to the core.

Language of the devil? Uh . . . maybe. Consider all of those angry cat memes. There’s definitely a connection. (I heard this cat’s name is Beelzebub . . .)

angry cat

(And I hate myself for sniggering at this. Funny, but . . .)

But is sarcasm really that awful? I mean, come on. People bug us, so we MUST retaliate, right?


Then I read this article about “No Corrupt Communication,” (read it here) by Jennifer Grace Jones: “Not all sarcasm is intentionally sinister, but it has a hypocritical edge because it requires us to say the opposite of what we mean. Some use it for humor, but it often damages our relationships.”

I’ve known families that communicate only in sarcasm, and there’s very little genuine love expressed. In fact, there’s very little expressed at all, except thinly veiled contempt, when I suspect they actually feel much, much more. But they’ve never learned to speak in any other way.

In another article I found this painful little nugget: “Sarcasm . . . is usually based on inordinate pride and is usually aimed at some person or group thought to be inferior.”

Erg. Yes. I may be guilty of this . . .

All right, I am. And I know it, because when I employ a little snarky jab, or laugh at yet another sarcastic meme, I always feel a twinge of regret later, as if I just ate the last of the cookies and told my kids I didn’t know what happened to them.
Initially, I enjoyed gorging myself, then afterwards I remind myself I could have done something much better.

The words of a fantastic and inspired sweet old man, gone now from this world, put it like this:
“Everywhere is heard the snide remark, the sarcastic gibe, the cutting down of associates. Sadly, these are too often the essence of our conversation. In our homes, wives weep and children finally give up under the barrage of criticism leveled by husbands and fathers. Criticism is the forerunner of divorce, the cultivator of rebellion, sometimes a catalyst that leads to failure.”
~Gordon B. Hinckley

Hickley 1

Look at that face. That’s a man who never uttered a sarcastic word in his life. I want a face like that. (Except female. And a bit younger, and . . . but you know what I mean. And the hat–the hat’s awesome!)

But then I found this nugget by Dostoyevsky and, like any person forced to make a life in Russia, he sees things a bit darker, a bit harder: “Sarcasm is usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

Is there a place for sarcasm? It’s not always hurtful; occasionally we use it in our family in what I think are gentle, teasing ways . . . until my 5-year-old says, with sad eyes, “I don’t like it when you tease me. I feel confused.”

Ooh. Sorry.

Maybe sarcasm is ok only in limited circumstances, when the only other option is violence or rage.
Maybe it’s the only way to deal with disappointment.
I find myself leaning on it as a crutch when I deal with toddlers. For example, when I found my 19-month-old had colored again on the walls with “washable” markers (Crayola and I need to have a talk about the definition of “washable”), I looked into his big proud eyes and said, with all the sincerity of heart I could muster, “Why thank you. You know, when I was hugely pregnant with you and painted each one of these a nice pale blue in anticipation of your arrival, I hadn’t expected that you would want to augment the color with purple, brown, and pink. It’s just . . . lovely.”

Either that, or rage at the poor little guy even though it was my fault for thinking I had secured the markers, but failed to hide every chair in the house to keep them out of reach.  Sarcasm saved my little guy, calmed my frustration, and made me chuckle at myself as I uselessly scrubbed.

No, my soul wasn’t exactly “coarsely . . . invaded,” but something inside of me was pinged, and sarcasm saved us all.

But I think these are rare circumstances. Consider this meme:


Sarcasm, at its heart, is simply sheer rudeness to those we feel we’re superior to.

All of us are better than that, surely!

Again from Jones’s article: “I’ve noted that those who use [sarcasm] tend to underestimate its negative effects because they assume that what they say is humorous instead of hurtful. People who use sarcasm often think their targets are too sensitive or naïve when feelings get hurt. “She just can’t take a joke,” they say. In more disturbing cases, sarcasm communicates contempt for others and gives people the “dishonest opportunity to wound without looking like they’re wounding.”

I want to be better than that, so I’m attempting to put myself on a sarcasm diet. I’m going to parcel out my servings of sarcasm, or indulgences of snarkiness, as judiciously as I should be eating cookies. Sparingly, appropriately, and avoiding it as often as possible.

Another gem from that sweet old man, Gordon B. Hinckely: “I’m asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort.”

Hinckley 2

Sarcasm is easy, lazy, and “the imitation of strength.”

I want to be stronger—truly stronger. And not eat so many cookies.

Of all the lists we make . . .

I sat once next to a man in his seventies at the doctor’s office who was making a list. In bold letters written in a blue Sharpie, impossible not to see on the yellow legal pad, were the words: WHAT I STILL WANT.

As I glanced at the title of his page, I smiled and randomly thought of students I’ve had in the past. The most interesting were the ones coming back to college, also wanting something.

First I thought of the middle aged mom with seven children at home who wanted to support her family. She told me the first day of class that she wouldn’t be there too often, but she’d always have a teenager there to take notes and turn in her homework, and would that be all right? She worked full time at the hospital as an LPN, and was also going to school full time to earn her RN, because a couple of years ago her husband—the family’s wage-earner until recently—was struck with Multiple Sclerosis and was now confined to a wheelchair.

Yes, I could work with her to get her what she wanted, because I found myself wanting to be that selfless, devoted, and driven.

Then there was the recently widowed grandmother who, for her 65th birthday, decided she’d give herself a present and go back to school, starting with taking my business writing class. She was more prepared each day than I was, and spanked the class with her grades. I wanted one of her in every class I taught, for all the depth of thought she brought to the discussions.

Then I remembered the 40-something Mexican immigrant, who, although he had a good job, wanted to prove to his daughters that an education was important, so he was coming back to school to earn an associate’s degree. He was also a part-time actor, with an over-the-top personality, and was the loudest and most entertaining student I could’ve ever wanted.

And then there was the 50-something entrepreneur who apologized that he’d miss a few days because he frequently flew to Europe for work. I later learned it was in his private jet, and when I saw an article in the newspaper about him, realized he was a self-made millionaire several times over. But he always regretted dropping out of college and was “treating” himself to a degree in his spare time. He emailed me his writing assignments when he was over the Atlantic, and I wanted all of my students to take their educations as seriously as he did.

There were dozens of other students I’ve had over the years, with interesting lives and goals they never finished and regrets they were trying to reverse, and I remembered a great deal of them as I sat in the doctor’s office waiting, and I hoped they all got what they wanted.

“Wanna see it?” the old man next to me beamed, and I was relieved he was holding up his paper instead of the odd growth on his arm.

“Looks interesting.”

“It’s what I still want in life,” he explained unnecessarily and pointed to the list more than fifty items long and growing.

I took it obligingly and expected to be amazed.

I was.

Not in a good way.

The list didn’t read like a bucket list of sorts, or a wish list for his descendants, or pearls of wisdom he wanted to share.

I felt instead as if I was reading my 10-year-old’s Christmas list, a boy who was deliberately clueless to the needs of anyone else, and seemed to think we could generate money simply by buying fewer vegetables.

Some items on the old man’s list were amusing.

#4—a decent set of nose clips that don’t come off when I dive in the pool.

But, as I glanced sidelong at the hefty man whose breathing was a bit labored, I wondered just how many years it’d been since he dived into anything deeper than a bowl of pudding.

I began to squirm as I read other items.

#12 Cruise to Alaska—with the seafood buffets (because Sterling’s grandkids gave him that, and I have more grandkids than he does)

#27  Someone to remodel the bathroom. (Preferably one of those TV shows, not my sons because they don’t do as fine as work, and their wives will want to paint it again.)

#48 New taller vinyl fence in the yard (so I don’t have to see the tops of the neighbor kids’ heads when they’re outside)

And so the list went on, and I realized the very definition of Crotchety Old Goat was sitting next to me.

But when I came to the end of the list, I began to have just a glimmer of hope.

#56  A plain wooden coffin.

Until I saw:

(Except if someone will spend a few thousand dollars to give me proper send-off, I want one of those highly painted caskets—always thought that’d be a classy way to go).

I slid the page back over to him, disappointed. For someone of his age, and according to the old faded tattoo on his arm, someone who served in Viet Nam and knew about hardship and sacrifice and serving others, I’d expected something a little less . . . childish.

And I wondered snarkily for a moment what this man did with his social security payments taken from my paycheck.

I also thought about my former students who found a deeper purpose in life than just planning to get more stuff than “Sterling” had by the end.  (Whoever Sterling was, I hoped for his sake this old guy lived far, far away from him, but I suspected Sterling was his brother.)

I also remembered the verse in Proverbs that says, “ . . . with all they getting, get understanding.” I looked into the eyes of the man next to me, and there was something hard and cold in them. He was obsessed with the getting, but in all the years he’d been on the earth, he’d tragically missed the understanding.

“So what happens if you don’t get all of that on your list?” I cautiously asked.

He blinked rapidly as if that thought had never crossed his mind. “Well, I’ll be giving a copy of that list to all my kids and grandkids. They usually give me useless stuff for Christmas and birthdays. Just how many pictures of children and by children can one man use, right? Can’t keep any of them straight, anyway, even when they label the pictures. No, I’ll get all of this,” he said confidently as he slipped the yellow page into a folder. “My wife says I’m nuts, but at this stage in my life I deserve to get what I want.”

Fortunately at that moment the person I was waiting for was ready to leave. I nodded politely to the old man as I left, and wondered if his descendants knew that he saw them only as objects to boost his getting, rather than as people to treasure. I rather suspected they did, and wouldn’t be weeping too much over his simple wooden casket.

I promised myself that day that if ever I got that old and felt the need to make a list, it’d better be of stuff I planned to give, not take.

Even if the coffin was one of those glossily painted numbers that looks like it was designed for a departing Vegas showgirl, nothing I took from the world would fit in it anyway. All that remains is what we give.