One of my teachers was sarcastic, elegantly sarcastic.
Elegant, because she contrasted it with a loving continence, easy laugh and warm, watery eyes.
She was welcoming—until she wasn’t.
Sarcasm comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmos), which means “to strip flesh.” Lovely image, eh?
That’s what it felt like with her and although I’ve never had my flesh stripped, I have had plenty of mountain bike crashes where my flesh has been ground away by rocks and dirt.
It happens fast with a vibrancy that is hard to replicate.
One minute I am riding along, fluidly conjoined with my bike and the trail and in an instant—bam! I am lying in a heap, bleeding, wondering where I went wrong.
For one of the chapters in my book, I began to investigate sarcasm, the cause, the effect and the pre-causal environment.
Here is my current hypothesis. Sarcasm is a distancing mechanism from the discomfort of intimacy.
The teacher is a big personality with lots of charm, knowledge, intelligence and charisma. She has a vast capacity to be present and empathetic. She is a great instructor with a startlingly mystical ability to present something personally relevant.
So, people, myself included, seek her out. We want to be close. It feels good. We lower our defenses.
As we lower our defenses, the energy we were expending to maintain that defense isn’t spent. If it isn’t spent we get energized. We get so energized, we want to share our energy with her.
She feels our expansion, feels the energy coming her way and begins to take it in. She takes it in until she gets full.
We all have a range of energy (vitality) that we are comfortable with. When we get to the edge of our comfort zone, we begin to look for ways to diffuse.
We begin to feel overwhelmed by our own vitality and our systems look for some way to regain stasis, our comfort zone.
I think this is the primary purpose for our personality. We do what we do as a way to stay comfortable. When we find something that works, we do it more often. Pretty soon, it becomes habit. We do it more and more often until we can’t separate those habitual reactions from who we are. We become what we habitually do.
Back to sarcasm. She was feeling our expansion, metabolizing the energy coming her way and it filled her system. She has a big container, she can take in a lot of appreciation, gratitude and adulation.
But at some point, she would get over-full and then over-full would transition to overwhelm. Overwhelm would trigger the desire to stop the incoming energy and to vent the excess.
And one of the cards at the top of her venting deck was sarcasm. Maybe it was modeled by her parents, her peer group or demographic region. She may have grown up in a sarcastic household, with sarcastic friends or in an area of the country prone to sarcasm pandemics. She may have had a sarcastic teacher, coach or mentor. At some point and in some way, she discovered how efficient it was as a way to return her to her comfort zone.
Here is how it works.
First, the sarcasm releases an explosion of energy.
A few words, heavy with import, expelled to get relief. Second, it creates distance. When I was the object of her diffusionary tactics, I would shrink. If she is shrinking from releasing energy and I am shrinking from the rebuke, we are getting farther apart.
Picture yourself holding a balloon in each hand. Picture them magically inflating. As they inflate, they get closer and closer until they are pushing against each other. Now picture the balloons deflate, their relative distance does not change but their perceptual distance does. You can also picture the distancing even if only one of the balloons deflates.
Sarcasm allowed her to reduce her overwhelm and momentarily stop the flow of incoming energy.
If intimacy is the empathetic communion between two people or a group of people, then sarcasm, the stripping of flesh, is it’s evil twin.
After I formed my hypothesis, I tested it. I began to watch for the times I was flesh-stripping and began to evaluate my vibrancy and my need to distance. Sure enough, every single time I was sarcastic or felt the need to be sarcastic, I was trying to create separation and relieve the discomfort of my overwhelm.
Before I felt the need to be sarcastic, I was overtly vital. I was energized to the point of discomfort. My desire to be sarcastic was rooted in my desire to return to my typical range of vitality.
I could also feel just how unkind sarcasm is.
I could feel how I was trying to wound, to injure, to push people away, just so that I could return to a place of comfort.
A large part of my current practice is discerning my edges. I know that when I am at an edge, my mind begins to conjure ways to regain stasis. Discerning and then tolerating the discomfort of my edges allows for adaptation. I adapt and grow when I tolerate healthy discomfort.
“A tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edge tool that grows keener with constant use.”
~ Washington Irving, The Sketch Book (1819).
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Travis May
Photo: SashaW, Flickr Creative Commons