“Irreverence is a way of playing hooky and remaining present at the same time.” -Mary Ruefle
Today, while playing my Storytelling game with some students, one of my students started teasing me. I responded by getting more serious about the story we were telling. He responded by teasing me more. We both ended up a little hurt and a lot confused about how things had gone. We’re good friends, so after all of that we spent a bit of time alone to think things over, and then we came together to talk things through.
He started by apologizing. I responded by apologizing. After that we could get down to work. Had he been finding my weak places, and pushing them? (Why do people like pushing exactly where someone is vulnerable?) Had I been taking myself too seriously? I’ve been told that before–once, notably, by a young woman who went by the name Goose, because of the helmet she liked to wear. (It was covered in feathers).
We talked around it, over it, and through it, and came up with an idea. Reverence means “respect, awe;” in the end it comes from the Proto-Indo European wer- “to become aware of, perceive, watch out for.” I was being reverent–I was insisting that the choices we make, even the choices in telling a story, matter. They carry weight. They’re something we should watch out for. I think reverence is important–there is a lot in the world that we should respect.
Etymologically, irreverence should be the opposite of reverence–but I’m not sure that’s true. The opposite of reverence is not perceiving, not watching out, not being aware. Irreverence, as Ruefle reminds us, often works by being aware of something else. It works by questioning, by challenging why we give weight to the things we do. After all, we’ve respected a whole lot of silly things over the years. Sometimes we need to play hooky from our “responsibilities” in order to notice the things that actually require more of a response from us. Sometimes an afternoon in the river (or a conversation with a friend) has more to offer than a worksheet on a desk.
For what it’s worth, I think the balance lies, not in melding these two together, but in remembering that they work together. It’s easy for reverent people to get insulted by irreverent people, and it’s easy for irreverent people to think reverent people are sticks in the mud. Still, a carpenter who doesn’t respect the hammer is going to end up with lots of hurt fingers, and a carpenter who doesn’t question things is never going to build a better house. Those things that actually deserve respect can probably stand up to a little teasing, and the best teasing usually includes a little respect.