Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 5, 2017 / 9 Iyyar 5777
Summary: Rabbi Kosak talks about his struggles with sarcasm, then relates the knowledge that comes out of this spiritual encounter as a pathway to experiencing God. In other words, as the Slonimer Rebbe used to say, our destiny is found in the place where we are most broken. That is where our own particular work of becoming more human is found. Our spiritual growth is determined by how well we complete the task. Where do we start and where do we end?
Sarcasm is said to be a sign of intelligence. Oscar Wilde perhaps said it best. “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”I find it to both be and not be such a sign.
I have a little to go on. It’s an east coast thing, and although I intentionally left New York and so much of what it stands for, there’s this NY part of me that’s always been reluctant to let go of things sardonic. For New Yorkers, sarcasm is a form of verbal fencing. It’s no wonder that the only good sports team of my alma mater, NYU, was the fencing team. Like fencing, compelling sarcasm uses feints, lunges and parries.
Normally, no one gets particularly hurt fencing. But every so often, someone does. Face masks were changed after a fatal accident in 1982 and again in 2009. It’s the same with sarcasm. Sarcasm is fast, clever and can range from outright humorous to downright caustic. The thing with sarcasm, like with fencing, is that both parties need to be prepared or someone is liable to suffer.
In New York, that was rarely a problem. The city is crowded and filled with stimulus. Lights, smells, people getting pushed, or working hard to avoid the crush. Rushing through the subway tunnels as you change lines is a bit like a Jason Bourne movie. You have to be on at every moment, focused and guarded. You need to see everything. The constant demands of living in such an intense environment can be tiring, yet losing your situational awareness can be dangerous. Caffeine can only take you so far.
That’s where sarcasm comes in handy. Sarcasm helps you stay awake. There’s some good science behind that, and it depends on its underlying features. For one, sarcasm is inherently a creative act. It looks at the surface of a situation and, using the tone of voice or an unexpected and sudden turn, creates a contradictory statement. “People used to laugh at me when I would say “I want to be a comedian”…well nobody’s laughing now.”
That unexpected mood or tone of voice demands a level of abstraction, both on the person making the comment, and the person who is interpreting it. To generate or pick up on sarcasm, in other words, stimulates us to think creatively.
Sarcasm and the Receptive Receiver
Problems begin when the sarcasm gets too caustic, the person you are speaking to is in some fundamental way unprepared to deal with the thrust or lunge, or there is some absence of trust in the relationship. To know when to use sarcasm effectively therefore requires a careful read of the situation and the people involved. It is also true that some people are highly receptive to sarcasm’s barb. They feel its sting more deeply and are more readily injured by it. For them, sarcastic repartee is never a sport.
In my younger days, I was clever enough to be sarcastic, but I often misread the circumstances or the person involved, and lost some friends in the process. Along the way, I’ve tried to overcome or reduce how frequently I turn to sarcasm. That’s been a difficult and drawn out path for me. You can take the boy out of New York…
Apart from how hurtful sarcasm can be, I began to see its ugliness. More importantly, while sarcasm requires some intelligence, it also depends on deep ignorance to exist. For while the associative thinking of sarcasm highlights and makes invisible connections visible, it also quite often masks truths just out of view. For me, sarcasm was/is too often a defense strategy against boredom, resentment, agitation and a host of other signals.
The Light of God Comes Down to Us All at Once
Signals, yes. Most of us have developed some maladaptive coping strategies to deal with the stresses of life. Or, what started out as a successful method to fend off the problem of being human slowly stops working. Some of us use bitterness, envy, platitudes, disdain or a host of other techniques to ward off that which calls for our attention. It’s hard to find a meeting in which someone isn’t turning to their cell phone to transport them out of their difficulties. For me, sarcasm has been the tool of choice.
This past week was a hard one for our community and for me. Three funerals. I found the death of our 29 year old Jasmine Spiegel particularly draining. My resources were drawn down, and at a particularly inopportune time, I let a zinger out at Laura. Anyone who knows Laura knows that she is most definitely a receptive receiver. I badly hurt one of the people I love most. In that moment, I hurt myself more deeply, resorting as I did to a flawed part of myself that I wish were already healed.
What is remarkable about our humanity is how when we turn our attention on to our own being, a little more of God’s light of intelligence filters into our awareness. It’s always there, always available for us. We merely need to turn towards the light. The act of looking at ourselves begins to change us. That’s what teshuvah is. Over the years, this act of self-acknowledgement has softened the edges of my sarcasm and reduced the frequency of its occurrence. But like all of us, I am a work in progress.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What’s your failsafe mechanism for dealing with life’s stressors? How has that helped you cope? What ways has it stifled your own growth?
- Do you think that America has become more sarcastic as we’ve also become more polarized?
- When is sarcasm appropriate? Inappropriate? What is your line in the sand?
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