To this day, I have no idea what we were arguing about but, in a moment, I was stripped down and exposed. “It’s not helpful right now to get sarcastic,” she said, and then continued, “You’re better than that, Natalie, more clever and kind.” I had been blindsided, completely unaware I was even being sarcastic. It had been a habit, a well-worn pattern for me when tension was high.
In the moment of our conflict, I felt threatened and afraid. But rather than acknowledge the fear (which requires way more vulnerability, thank you!) I chose a more dominating route: I picked up my sword and lashed out before my fear turned to helplessness. Obviously, this was not the first time I made this move.
Flashes of childhood moments when I felt powerless came to mind. Sarcasm was not foreign to me. I was drawn to this cunning form of combat – an effective way of protecting myself and demonstrating superiority at the same time. So, in the instant with my friend, I reached for what I knew and had used in order to survive. I rolled my eyes in disgust and secured myself, as if to say, “I’m above you and I refuse to be hurt by you.”
This approach had worked particularly well during my teenage years, providing me with a powerful surge of victory at times when I felt most powerless. When the art was perfected, humor was added to disguise the sarcasm, leaving people off-kilter because the sharp edge was laced with something genuinely funny, creating a razor-edged cut that secured the illusion of friendship but kept me safe.
I remember using this tactic when I was 16. I worked after school at a local caramel corn shop, and my boss confronted me about too liberally using one of the sweeteners rather than measuring it as I had been taught. I gave him a sharp but comical remark in return to deflect his reprimand. He smiled and commended my cleverness, only affirming my knack for deflecting opportunities for correction and guidance in the future.
Life became a game of hide-and-seek rather than candid communication, even with people in authority. I was aware, even then, that connection was lost with others and myself. Genuine feedback was rarely received. Conflict was never resolved. And my heart grew increasingly isolated and ambivalent. Around that time I remember reading Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
I thought about my dear friend’s words long after the argument was over. “You’re better than that, Natalie, more clever and kind.” No one had ever called me out, and then called me to something better. No one had ever ripped off the disguise and believed I could be better – “…the tongue of the wise brings healing.” I began to realize my careless remarks were cheap and revealed deeply held contempt and grief, a reflection of my unexamined heart.
It is always kindness that heals deeply held patterns.
Slowly, as anger and fear rise in me during conflict today, I seek to stay present and do the counterintuitive work of turning toward vulnerability instead of hiding. I refuse the enticing remarks in my head and seek honest listening and thoughtfulness. I seek to be patient with myself, dabbling with new forms of humor that do not bite or keep others distant. And, I am grateful for the kindness of a friend calling me to be a better version of who God made me to be.
Natalie Sum thrives when someone she knows has an “Ah-hah” moment, whether in a classroom, through an online class she’s created or just talking with a friend. Natalie has a Masters degree in Education and Bachelors degree in Social Work. She feels most alive cruising on her bike and relishing in God’s creation. Natalie lives in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago.