This Thanksgiving, I came home to delicious food, hearty belly laughs with a dear college friend, and awkward conversations with my extended family. Returning home from college is always a strange experience for me. When I see my extended family, I have an intense and devilish desire to shock them in some way by not living up to their expectations. Part of this is my resistance to entering the adult world. Part of this is because it is much easier to make sarcastic jokes and smart remarks than to have honest conversations with relatives whom I see once or twice a year. Getting personal in these situations is hard.
During Thanksgiving this year, I started with my usual, awkward silent smiles, waiting for someone to start talking to me (after all, if they want to have a conversation, they can do the talking, right?). Then, before I even bothered to ask my uncle about his life, I clumsily told him a story of a mishap I recently had at school. The whole conversation was my attempt to be funny and subtly avoid talking about school- and relationship-related issues, things my uncle actually wants to know about my life.
Moving on through the evening, I finally sat down with my uncle’s girlfriend’s parents, Warren and Laura. These sweet elderly people just wanted to chat about life. So, I made my wisest decision of the night and started asking them questions. And listening. Warren’s memories of walking Laura home from school during their college days, and Laura’s advice on making recipes and tales of her escapades as a home-ec schoolteacher made my night.
Conversations like that don’t happen to me often enough. Warren and Laura reminded me of something called The Art of Conversation. Simply put, this art was lost on me because I was focusing on my own comfort and wants, instead of having a genuine curiosity about the lives of others. This kind of conversation involves putting away the sarcastic irony that pervades our culture and showing true emotion and interest.
In her New York Times article, Princeton University professor Christy Wampole elegantly explains our culture’s problematic obsession with irony and how it is affecting every facet of our lives, particularly our interactions with other humans. What is the solution? According to Wampole, we need to start with a sincere and critical look at ourselves:
“What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.”
Interestingly enough, Wampole believes that the people who best model non-ironic living include very young children and “deeply religious people.” This is interesting because in the Bible, Jesus holds children up as models multiple times.
Matthew 18:3-4 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke 18:15-17 “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'”
Truly, we as Christians have a heavenly Father. We are his children. Because of this, we are free to live authentic, emotionally real lives. There is no pressure to conform to the pattern of irony that covers up emptiness in our culture. We aren’t empty, so what reason do we have to cover our emotions and the truth that we know with a constant flow of sarcastic jokes? Irony and sarcasm go hand-in-hand, and they both work to push people away. The Gospel is about bringing people together.
Enjoy the awkwardness this holiday season and embrace the family that God gave you to love. Get curious about their lives, and pretty soon, you won’t feel the need to cover up your awkwardness with sarcastic humor.