Buckle down, this one will be long.
Growing up as an only child, and without the influences of a wholesome family, I grew up thinking that all families were as dysfunctional as was portrayed on TV. It’s what sells, right? (I remember seeing a t-shirt celebrating it with the words “putting the ‘fun’ back in dysfunctional”). Bickering, backstabbing, and sarcasm were among the most frequent tools used to perpetuate chaos in family relationships. And so our entertainment media succeeded, intentionally or not, to instill in me a belief that families were all defective as a matter of course. Growing up by myself, and then moving to a different country as a child, helped to isolate me from experiences that contradicted that faulty belief.
The first challenge to my misconception happened in the dining room of a family that my teenage brain decided to visit. I had known them for many years but never had reason to go see them, and still didn’t, but I went anyway, and they were happy that I was there to play with their son (he had three sisters but no brothers). I can’t tell you how old I was, or what we did that day, but three things I witnessed were so shocking that I still have vivid memories of how I felt. The first was the father issuing strict orders to his rowdy children to settle down, which I had fully expected to be ignored with disdain. Instead, they complied happily. I was speechless, and stood there trying to understand what had happened. Such a minor thing in hindsight, but to me it was world-changing: it was the first sign that families do not, as a matter of course, do everything in their power to frustrate and diminish each other.
(Let me pause here to assure you, dear reader, that my own family life wasn’t nearly as bad as the bad examples seen on TV. Not by a long shot. But as a child, everything in the immediate vicinity of your experience is different. For example, children do not see their parents as people, but as a unique class of something else (personal servants!) that they do not even apply to their friends’ parents. Well, children can barely conceive of themselves as equal with other children, let alone other people. Do you perhaps remember that time when you first saw a teacher outside a classroom and realized with a shock that teachers are people, too? In summary: Mom, don’t interpret this as criticism of you and/or my childhood circumstances. I can attest as an adult that they were fine, and I turned out OK.)
The second thing I witnessed, though I would not be able to put it in words until many years later, was the quantity of effort the parents put in caring for their children’s well-being, and the quality of attitude in which they did so. The context of this effort and care was unremarkable (maybe something to do with bread–I don’t remember), but their genuine affection shone through in a way that stunned me. To them, naturally, everything was simply as it always had been, and that is the third element of that little experience that affected me in such a big way. The niceness was not special, but common and abundant. My notions of family life were critically compromised. But, as someone whose worldview is suddenly damaged, denial was my natural reaction. It would take time before I consciously acknowledged it.
That time passed, and seeds planted by that family laid dormant for a while. I continued in the typical way of a teenager and honed my skill at pushing my relationships to the edge. Many things happened in that time, but nothing consequential to this story.
Years later I found myself in Nebraska, of all places, with a different family, celebrating Thanksgiving. There were five siblings, all adults, and several friends. All of them decent people, but the friends were different from the siblings in that they, like me, were part of the greater culture that settled for barely-tolerable relationships. The siblings were exceptional in their encouragement of those around them. They seemed like bottomless fountains of support and kind words, and they actively sought out opportunities to speak words that lifted others up. One in particular remains to me a paragon of virtue despite not having contact in several years.
Again, as with the last experience, I don’t remember the incidental stuff of that Thanksgiving weekend, but I do remember vividly my emotions as I once again stumbled on something so alien that I could not even recall similar experiences to describe by relation. And, again, the thing which sparked those old seeds seemed rather mundane. I happened to say some biting, sarcastic thing to someone (I don’t remember what or to whom). The response was undecipherable. Something like a pause, a half-beat silence in the conversations around me, and a curious look like you might give something that doesn’t quite belong. And that’s exactly what it was: something that didn’t belong. In that environment of encouragement and support, everyone was free to let their guard down completely. It felt very safe, like running barefoot at home. My words were like broken glass waiting to be stepped on. In that moment of pause I felt both shame and curiosity at the shame. I had never considered sarcasm to be negative because it was so commonplace, but in a single instant I discovered that it was bad, why it was bad, and the fact that I was responsible for habitually taking these bad actions.
Until I was exposed to these families and experienced the environment of safety, I saw no real problem with sarcasm. But now I do see it. Habitual sarcasm precludes safety because it is a destructive form of criticism. Being used to sarcasm causes you to constantly re-interpret what people say (this is especially evident when trying to interpret ambiguous text messages). It’s mentally-taxing work, but, like the force of gravity, we are so accustomed to it that we would only notice its absence, not presence. I discovered this by accident. After I burned out during my last year of college, I stopped interpreting sarcasm because I simply had no energy for it. But after my recovery, I had trouble detecting sarcasm. I discovered that life was easier that way, too. Perhaps this is just an artifact of being an introvert, but I have more energy to devote to people when I don’t have to spend any on protecting myself from sarcasm.
If you say that some sarcasm is meant as a joke, then I must rue the fact that criticism is taken as a form of humor. That sort of joke is a kind of mockery, and I detest mockery and mockers, even though I often feel the urge to do it myself. If you don’t want to accept my moral rejection of sarcasm, let’s at least agree that it is cheap. With all the richness that a relationship of trust can provide, why settle for enjoying crude criticism? An environment of trust and support is pretty epic. And so was this post. The end.