Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
You know it’s time for a change when your kid corrects you.
It was during family dinnertime, when I was waxing sarcastic about a woman we know who posted on social media daily photos of sunsets and rainbows and dolphins, along with encouraging (but nonetheless annoying) affirmations. I jeered and I sneered and I dropped the word “cheesy.”
Fast forward a few hours, when my oldest, then 17-year-old Maggie, sat on the edge of her bed and reluctantly told me about her hard day at school. I had come into her room because she’d seemed a bit gloomy, and I was pressing her for details. But she was in no mood. And then Maggie said, through tears, that she held back from sharing with me because I made fun of things. She used the “c” word—cynical. And Mom, she confessed, I like those dolphin pictures.
That was last February—it was, in fact, precisely a week before Ash Wednesday. I decided for Lent I was going to give up not chocolate or gin and tonics but snark. I would abstain from insults and digs, mocking and malice. Cold turkey, I was going to give mankind a break. I wasn’t sure if the planet would continue to spin sans my running commentary, but I was going to find out.
The snark-casm had gotten out of hand. Around the same time Maggie confided that my comments kept her from opening up to me, my friend, Cristell, urged, “Remember when you used to say everyone is doing the best they can with what they have?”
Yes, I remembered, I answered reluctantly. I must have been over-caffeinated, I told her. Or tipsy.
But Cristell—and Maggie—had a point. I had gone from a measure of compassion and acceptance to: If this is everyone’s best, everyone had better step it up. Slipping into self-righteousness had become like putting an extra scoop or two of French roast in the coffee maker each morning—my default mode. And sarcasm, like coffee, made me feel a wee bit invincible. Not good.
Lent could not have come sooner.
So I set off for the desert, determined to deny the temptation to tease. A companion Lenten resolution: total withdrawal from Facebook. Facebook is where the four-fifths of my brain that does the judging kicks into high gear. Too much fodder.
To seal the deal (as if swearing to God was not enough), the Sunday before Lent started, I disclose my strategy to a friend via text. I’m stopping the snark, I inform her.
She replies, most un-snarkily: Yes. We will all be living together someday!
At this, I find myself gagging a little. I think about that morning’s church service and the guy three rows over who punctuated every sermon point by bleating amen! I’ll be spending eternity with amen-ers? To be honest, I am hoping for more of an Episcopal atmosphere in the afterlife. Polite head-bows rather than hand-raising. Suddenly I panic. We’ll all be together someday. Will my Maker respect my need for alone time?
I realize it is going to be a long forty days.
Lent begins, and a few days later I am at my book club, seated at a dining room table laden with china and silver. I am sitting up straight, my napkin in my lap. I am wearing a dress. I am on my best behavior. But my friends have mentioned a trigger topic, and I start squirming. They are giving me sideways glances. Why am I so quiet?
I spill out my Lenten scheme and inform them that on this particular subject and others—and I name them—I am biting my tongue. Which, I say, I think is bleeding right now.
Which is all kind of snarky.
On the drive home, I realize that, in record time, I have reached the end of me. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…
I am not new to doing Lent, and I have learned through the years that Lent is not about perfect sacrifice (look what I can do, Lord!) but a constant reminder that I require divine assistance.
Lots of it.
It is March, and I am in my car on my way to break bread with a favorite of mine, Missy, legendary in our circle for her big heart—and her biting humor. (Missy is notoriously direct—when I first met her in line at a Sunday school potluck, she criticized my macaroni and cheese. “Breadcrumbs,” she said in a conspiratory tone. “No one’s eating your mac and cheese because of the topping—kids especially don’t like breadcrumbs.” At the next potluck when I showed up sans breadcrumbs, she congratulated: “You learned!” I have loved her ever since.) When Missy and I get together, it’s like an episode of Gilmore Girls—fast-talking, silly, snark on steroids.
It’s so much fun.
I am early for our tete-a-tete, so I pray in the barbecue restaurant’s parking lot. (I find myself praying in quite a few parking lots during Lent.) Lord, help me find a way to stifle the sarcasm but still be me…
At lunch, there is unlimited Diet Coke. We have not seen each other in a while. Missy, firing on all cylinders, brings up: Donald Trump’s hairdo; whether or not women our age should wear leggings; and a crazy new fad diet. I am navigating a minefield—ever so gingerly I go. Five minutes in, I surrender.
“I’m trying to play it straight,” I say. “But you’re killing me. How about I nod my head if I concur? And maybe we can talk about, I don’t know, if peace is possible in the Middle East or our deepest fears? Or how to make crockpot food taste decent?”
She laughs. Missy has a really good laugh. We make it through the meal. We do not talk about the Middle East, but, for the most part, I avoid verbal warfare. It is exhausting. I feel like Tigger when he loses his bounce. I am not certain How. To. Relate. What about my sardonic side, my wit, my sense of irony?
On the other hand, I become increasingly aware that I am flexing my empathy muscles and allowing my kinder, gentler nature to come up for air.
One day I am Kroger-ing, and my cart overfloweth. I worry I will overload the self-checkout system, which I normally prefer. The clerk on duty is a surly woman who never says anything but the bare essentials. At least the self-checkout computer says “WELCOME VALUED CUSTOMER.” She could take a cue, I think, as I empty my buggy. I notice the date on the milk says APRIL 01—after Easter! APRIL 01 serves as a reminder—and I make myself focus not on surly lady’s mullet hair or sparkly inch-long nails, but her face. Suddenly she seems sad, not sour. I wonder what she is walking through. I catch her eye and smile at her. She smiles back, a tired smile that says, thanks, sugar, for trying.
Moments like this are reward.
And then, like the date on my milk promises, Easter arrives—it always does, hallelujah—and by then I have figured out: Snarky is part of who I am, and that’s okay. But. There is a difference between mean-snarky and merely wry. I needed to permanently shed the sin-snarky and exercise my powers only for self-deprecating, nobody-gets-hurt, lighten-the-moment snarky.
The Spirit shows me the difference.
So God and I, we are working on eradicating the brand of snark that bubbles up out of irritation, anger, pride. Like so many things, it is about a heart-check. What’s my motive?
The snark has softened, but I still slip up. Sometimes, zingers fly, and I cover my mouth with my hand in horror, as if I’ve just belched in front of the queen. I apologize to whoever’s in earshot. I hope for pardon.
I am doing the best I can.
As for everyone else, I cannot be metaphysically certain they are doing the best they can. But I know this: I get along in this world better when I give others the benefit of the doubt, without the tallying of smart vs. stupid and right vs. wrong and tasteful vs. tacky.
Thanks to my Helper, who showed up mightily during Lent, something has shifted. I am stepping lighter, which is an excellent sign I am not carrying a load on my own.
My favorite piece of evidence? One night a few weeks into Lent, tender Maggie tells me about a contemporary Christian song she adores. We are sitting in the den in front of a crackling fire—her guard is down. I am not a CCM girl, but I ask her to play it for me.
“You won’t like it…” she hesitates.
“I will,” I insist.
I close my eyes and listen. When the music finishes, I tell her I like it. And I do.
(This piece appeared in this month’s issue of Guideposts.)