It’s easy to be a smart ass in the world.
Many of us have the experience of other people always looking for things we did wrong, moments they can use to mock and humiliate us. We feel attacked in the world, often with cheap shots and snarky comments.
That pounding, even if it is claimed to be good natured ribbing, well, it can really hurt.
We learn what we are taught, so in a world where we see smart asses being rewarded, with laughter and kudos, the natural response is to try to be a smart ass too. The best defence is a good offence, so why not learn to give as good or better than what you get?
Smart ass makes us feel like we have control and protection in the world. We are not just a victim of others snaps, we are able to hit back, get laughs and keep them in their place. Putting down others can feel like like it puts us up, pushing them down below us, puffing up our ego, trying to make ourselves look bigger and more threatening in the world.
Like any other defence, though, sarcasm don’t just keep us protected, they keep us isolated. They become a way to resist being open and vulnerable, separating rather than connecting us.
I grew up in a home where sniping and attacks from my mother were very common. She took shots to hurt people around her, to show how they were idiots and that she, because she could call out their errors, was above them. I learned to manipulate early, knowing how to use a sharp tongue to fight fire with fire.
For the decade before I moved in and took care of my parents, I had to learn how to be open and tender again. I had to learn to support dreams rather than just burst them.
It took a great deal of time to build the trust of my parents. They expected shots, and needed to learn that I wouldn’t slap back at my mother as I had in the past. By the end, though, they had learned to depend on me, knowing that showing weakness or fear would only engender compassion and help from me.
There was nothing more important than that trust, that safety, in my quest to give them one more good day. Fear that they would be hit rather than assisted would mean they had to stay tight and not open up their challenges, not work with me towards the best possible outcome.
Not being a smart ass doesn’t mean that you are only sweet. I always pointed out ironies, inconsistencies and places where we might be able to do better, but I did that with love and respect. I wasn’t trying to score points, to prove that I was smarter or bigger than they were, wasn’t trying to put them down. Instead, they came to understand that I was trying to lift all of us up.
I am witty and sharp, but I now use my words with compassion and wit, acknowledging that our flawed choices show continuous common humanity, reveal opportunities for growth and healing, rather than being stupid and low.
When you are in the smart ass mindset, it is easy to believe that the pearls you offer are gifts, barbed arrows shot to knock own arrogance and stupidity. After all, the first part of smart ass is smart, right? The smugness that comes with smart ass can feel very satisfying, at least until you wonder why people veer away from you, don’t trust you, and always want to fire back at you.
Moving to a constructive attitude, more open, earnest and forgiving can be hard. Our inner critic is often a smart ass, always ready to point out how we fucked up, left ourselves vulnerable, were made a fool of by not striking out first. Duh! We smart ass ourselves first, a protective response that comes from years of being the victim of casual tormenting, usually the well approved tormenting of children against other children.
Smart ass is sensational, a comforting dance of schadenfreude, delighting in the failures of others. Television producers, for example, have long used smart ass to invoke sensation, making even the most bumptious viewers feel superior when they can laugh at someone else brought low.
Moving beyond smart ass needs to come when we have people who depend on us, who trust us to help them grow and heal. Children are always going to make mistakes just because they don’t know better. Their mistakes are real and earnest attempts to succeed, steps along the way to knowledge. If we make them fear that failures will result in a cheap shot, smugly pointing out their lack of grace in a hurtful way, how can we ever encourage them to take risks and claim ownership?
To be a good manager, to be a good parent, to own your own humanity, you need to be able to move beyond smart ass. Alloying wit with compassion allows it to foster healing rather than just spread humiliating inequities.
You’d understand that, if you just weren’t such a damn smart ass.