In the past, I’ve enjoyed sharing a quippy little phrase that I considered both witty and telling of myself: “Some people are optimistic, some people are pessimistic, but I’m sarcastic.” I can hear myself saying it dozens of times over—impressed by my ability to wrap my worldview up into such a succinct yet alluring package.

Looking back, I’m both intrigued by what that sense of self—and my former eagerness to share it with others—means about who am, who I have been, and who I will be in the future. I see it as a funhouse mirror of values I indiscriminately incorporated into my sense of self starting in childhood. It was also, more than anything, a shell of words I carefully crafted to protect myself from criticism and prove I was worthy.

“…but I am sarcastic”—what did that ever really mean?

Today, not after, but rather in the midst of self reflection that’s come in the form of hypnotherapy, breathwork, meditation, career changes, mourning the death of a parent, and realizing I struggle with multiple process addictions that aren’t acknowledged or stigmatized the way substance abuse is, I hear behind those words a more vulnerable incarnation of myself.

Free from social anxiety and the perpetual feelings of awkwardness that cause some of us to become over-reliant on wit and banter, I hear her saying “I am strong,” “I am intellectually capable,” “I am worth listening to,” “I am aware of and interested in life’s ironies,” “I see the beauty and feel the pain.”

And while the incantation culminating in “but I am sarcastic” now at times seems repulsively arrogant and irritating, realizing the voice behind it is pure and eager for connection has invited me to think broader and deeper about sarcasm and its role in my life and our existence at large.

Sarcasm has been a crutch for me for a long time. So has deflecting instead of practicing graceful gratitude, overuse of hyperbole, and intellectualizing rather than emoting. No surprise then, that in my quest for self—for the truth itself!—I have experienced shame about my reliance on sarcasm and even entertained the idea that sarcasm is all bad and should be permanently banished from my repertoire (and perhaps the interactions of all kind and noble human beings). It made editing and co-authoring an article on sarcasm hard.

But then, as memory sometimes takes us back to deliver us forward, I was overwhelmed by a sense that humans are not just made for peace and contemplation. We’re made of energy, and we all have different energy levels—none of which are shameful or misfit. Whether a flashback to a very revelrous pillow fight preceded or followed that thought I can’t quite say, but suddenly, standing in the shower (one of my thinking places), I found myself revisiting many pillow fights I’ve enjoyed over the years, with lovers, with cousins, with friends. Little children (or grown adults) whacking the hell out of one another is hardly peaceful or contemplative. But it pains me to think of being the rigid, misinformed objector who would say “No! No pillow fights for you! You must stop this instant, drop, and meditate, lest your pillow fighting hurt someone.”

Now I realize that healthy sarcasm is much like a good pillow fight. It is an outlet for a certain type of energy. It makes us laugh. It bonds us—viscerally and in spirit. Being able to hurl a pillow across a room or declare “I like witty banter and sarcasm!” is freeing. It’s healing. It’s love and tenderness and physicality and intellect and the element of surprise. It’s and instead of or.

We can womp on one another with pillows and sleep safely together through the night at a slumber party when we trust everyone on the guest list. We can discover irony together through sarcasm and continue to observe routines of lovingkindness and emotional regulation.

But, as the rigid, misinformed pillow-fighting picketer points out, someone might get hurt. Sometimes our sarcasm is received the wrong way, even when no malice was intended. It’s like when someone turns around too fast and gets a pillowcase in the eye. Things didn’t line up, and one or more players might decide to take a break to make sure everyone’s okay. They might settle on new rules, or determine that one pillow with a hefty zipper doesn’t belong in the pillow fight.

We can be equally conscientious of our sarcasm without deciding sarcasm’s all bad.

But there is, of course, unhealthy sarcasm. Again, a lesson from pillow fighting:

When my sister and I were preteenagers, the biggest highlight of our summer was going to sleepaway camp, where once during our weeklong stay, the girls’ counselors would arrange a “secret” nighttime raid that involved sneaking into the boys’ dorm to engage in a pillow fight of epic proportions.

It was there, at Deer Hollow Ranch, that pillow fighting took on a new meaning as we learned from more experienced campers that our pillows could be weaponized by loading their cases up with batteries, flashlights, coins, and other weighty objects. Why? To inflict pain on the dirty boys and really make the most of the chance to emerge victorious.

Looking back, it’s noteworthy that my Best of Pillow Fights reel features only guilt-free, wholesome pillow fights, and that I recalled the one militant, gender-divided Deer Hollow experience during which I may have hurt a fellow camper only in its relation to sarcasm.

When it comes to unhealthy sarcasm, the batteries, flashlights, and coins we load into our pillowcases are our fears, angers, and repressed resentments. They’re the things we would never actually say to so-and-so, but that are there all the time, making unwelcome noise that will give us away as we sneak around with our nervous systems on edge, playing at good intentions.

After wrestling long and hard with my feeling that sarcasm just might deserve to be abolished, I realized I needed to wrestle. Life isn’t all calm contemplation and awareness washing over us like a gentle tide. Sometimes awareness smacks us around a bit and we push back. We feel empowered and we wield our power. For many of us, it’s through doubt, loss, and unexpected realization that we learn to do so in the right way.

Ultimately, we can’t participate in the pillow fight healthfully until we’ve gone within and wrestled there. The same is true of using sarcasm. If we haven’t addressed our loss, our perceived lack, our fears, our frustrations—even the little things that send us over the edge for no apparent reason—our sarcasm will hurt and jab. We’ll wind up being the participant who injures someone else during a moment of release because we didn’t realize how much energy was pent up inside.

Sometimes sarcasm does fit the energy of information, ideas, or a realization we’re dying to share—or a lesson that needs to be taught. That said, in order to reap the benefits of healthy sarcasm, we need check for loose change in the bottom of our pillowcases before we wind up for the big swing.

Want to read more about healthy sarcasm and getting centered? Check out “Sarcasm: Is Invoking the Power of Irony Healthy or Hurtful?”—the article that inspired these thoughts and memories.

Top Image: Spacer 118 by Kuba Bożanowski from the Warsaw Pillow Fight 2010. Used under CC BY 2.0. Purple moonlight effect applied to the original.
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