From Snark to Chasing the Flame by Michael Palmer

Snark and palaver are two words which almost sound like what they mean. Snark is biting wit, snapping back with snide and disparaging remarks. Palaver refers to idle, profuse, and pointless chatter. The concern is that too much of our politics, our relationships, and even our comedy are too densely populated with both. There is a fine line between a clever and light use of language and damage.

The mystic Thomas Merton argued that great communication begins with two things: having something to say, and being able to say it in sentences that aren’t half dead. These are so unlike this political season where much of the palaver resembles schoolyard bickering—the verbal equivalent of a “yo mama” level of discourse, while patting their own egos on the back. Clearly snark is in the saddle, and its dismissive words and attitudes, yell that it is at a gallop.

How ironic that while everyone secretly knows they are riddled with imperfection, aching deeply for meaningful life and love, so many are still strangely comfortable with inflicting casualties. The conflict and brokenness, international and interpersonal, ask for eyes that can see what doesn’t need to be squandered, and for us to be our better selves. This begs the question “are there any guide ropes, and are there any individuals, which could be served up to help?”

As to guide ropes, one of my sainted mother’s early lessons to her four sons was to be very slow in judging and drawing conclusion before you learn the facts. She was fond of saying, “always remember that behind everything is a story…find the story before you and speak ill of others, and especially before you needlessly lose them.” This truism is well summed up in a classic four part “test of language.” Before you permit any upcoming words to cross those lips of yours, you should be able to answer yes to the following four questions: Is it true? Is it necessary (does it have to be said, and who would be harmed)? Is it constructive and encouraging? Does it even actually improve on the silence? Without a yes to all four, the injunction from a four-year-old boy should hold sway. “We should,” he said, “use that ‘s’ word; we should ‘shut up.’” Those seemingly simple questions are a collective sentinel and safeguard.

As for individuals, there are two, Atticus Finch and Sergio Vieira de Mello. One is fictional, and one is real. Among the greatest compliments one man ever received was being told by a teenage friend of his own child, that through all her growing years, which included a very pained relationship with her own father, he had “always been her Atticus Finch.” The enduring strength of that statement is heavily tied to that fictional character in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. He embodied someone trying to do well… as a man, as a single father, as a lawyer, as a difference maker in a town struggling with race issues, and as a friend.

The nonfictional character worth considering was a man who was steeped in international politics, a United Nations diplomat. He worked for human rights in some of the harshest conditions where he also dealt with some of the worst leaders in recent times. The places included Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan, Mozambique, Lebanon, and Cambodia. He died at 55, at the hands of a suicide bomber in Baghdad, and has his life recounted by Samantha Power in her book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. He was Brazilian born and is described as both a realist and an idealist, a mix of James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. Flawed, thoughtful, and complicated, he was a political decathlete who wanted to make a difference. He didn’t shy from the flame.

From his experience, Power suggests four lessons on “how to be” in this world. First, be adaptive. Without surrendering your ideals, be willing to go into hard places where even dark minded people are, and deal with them. Second, espouse and demonstrate great respect for the dignity of others. Help restore dignity to those who have had theirs taken. Third, don’t work from a place of fear. Fear and panic are bad advisers, as is anger or insufficient information. And fourth, make your approach with humility, embracing the complexity of other lives, and other nations. There is typically more to them than you know.

Realistically, snark and palaver are here to stay. But they are given less reign if more credence is given to the four-fold test of language, to the four ways to be in this world, and to people like Atticus Finch and Sergio de Mello. These combine to rival the snark and palaver in our political discourse, our personal relationships, and yes, even the comedy of the day. They lean in towards Merton’s notion of what good communication is, and contribute to more robust and winsome lives. These are lives whose epitaphs have words like “here lies someone who risked trying to love well,” and “every book he read was a turn he took. He pitched into the world for plunder. He wanted to spend himself broke in the brain,” and “he tried to find words to patch the havoc” (Sylvia Plath),…..while chasing the flame.