We sat in the corner of the faculty room in the cafeteria, beside the window that looked out over the “Saga ‘O’”, a circular drive at the front of campus where people often caught rides. I could see the new (and somewhat contested) Jumbo-tron on the football field sticking up over the trees, and the ever-present train tracks that bordered our college campus to the south – a clear line between our little community and the rest of the town. My college had a program called, “Dine-with-a-Mind” where a student could get a coupon to share a meal with a professor. It was the spring of my senior year and it was the first time I had tried it.
I sat with my professor, an unpretentious, no-nonsense sort of woman in her late 30’s. I’d taken several classes with her over the years and had come to deeply admire and respect her. That semester I was auditing a class she was teaching on women writers. I was twenty-two years old, I was engaged, and I hated men with a fury that scared me. I sat at that table with my professor hoping that she had a magical answer for how to reconcile everything I was feeling with the wedding I was planning and the life I was about to start as one man’s wife. I loved Jonathan. In my mind, my relationship with him was something altogether separate from how I felt about men. But the intensity of my rage was problematic, even if it wasn’t directed at him.
So I sat with my professor and I told her, “I’m getting married this summer, and I think I hate men.” I told her how the things we talked about in class had moved me – men and their unacknowledged privilege and their dismissive treatment of women. Men, with their sexuality that seems biologically designed for dominance and subjugation. “How do you reconcile all of that with marrying a man, loving him well, being a wife?” I asked.
It was hardly a question I could expect a simple answer to. And she didn’t give me one. Instead she asked me about the men in my life. I told her, haltingly, apologetically, stumbling around the words that felt too big in my mouth that “I guess” my feelings had something to do with my grandfather who was an alcoholic and my brother who was an alcoholic and my father who was manipulative and verbally abusive, and who ultimately left me at the age of 8 and who I hadn’t seen since.
She looked at me across the table, looked straight at me, not uncomfortably away like so many others have, and simply said, “Lily, I’m so sorry.”
I shrugged, looked down at my plate, gave a half-smile. “It’s ok.”
“No,” she said. “It’s not OK. It’s shit. Let’s just call it what it is.”
“Ok,” I whispered. “You’re right. It’s shit.”
If you know me, you probably know that I don’t use a lot of profanity. In fact, it’s pretty rare for me to curse unless I’m repeating something, reading something, or occasionally, trying to use the shock value of it to make my mom or husband laugh (rightly or wrongly – you can judge me for that).
I’m not usually offended by other people cursing, but I grew up in a conservative Christian family and attended a conservative evangelical Christian school from kindergarten through high school. I didn’t listen to secular music and had only seen a handful of carefully-selected movies that were rated higher than PG. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing either of my parents curse. I once tattled on a classmate for saying the word, “crap,” at recess (In retrospect, I’m sure my teacher was horrified when I told her I’d heard him say “the c-word.”)
Swearing was always an easy measuring stick for determining what kind of person someone was. Everyone knew that God didn’t approve of that kind of language, so if someone used it, it was pretty clear where they stood with God. After all, Christians were supposed to be “set apart,” and being set apart was all about the things you didn’t do – no drinking, no smoking, no cursing, no gambling, no sex outside of marriage, no pornography, no secular music, no R-rated movies, no “sinfully erotic” dancing. (That last bit was an actual line from a Community Covenant I once had to sign).
Sitting across the table from my professor, I admit, I was a little shocked to hear her say, “shit.” But while I was surprised, I wasn’t offended. Part of me thought, “You’re supposed to be some sort of mentor here. Why aren’t you telling me that God wants to heal me and encouraging me to pray about it more?” The other part of me thought, “Thank God, she actually gets it.” And even if it wasn’t what I expected to hear from my Christian professor (maybe precisely because it wasn’t what I expected to hear), it was exactly the right thing to say. Because telling me, “No, it’s not ok. It’s shit,” gave me permission not to make light of something that was really pretty terrible. To fully acknowledge it for the wrong that it was (is).
When my husband read this piece he said, “But couldn’t she have used another word that communicated that she understood how bad and wrong the situation was?” And the answer, for me, is no. She couldn’t have used a different word with quite the same effect. It was the use of this particular word from someone who doesn’t throw it about flippantly that made me understand the fullness of what she was trying to say to me. She could have used a prettier word. Something more polite. But it wouldn’t have been the right word. It wouldn’t have been true.
In my childhood and young adulthood I looked down on curse words and those who used them – as if this handful of words was inherently so much worse than all the other hateful and ugly things I could say with the right combination of non-swear words. Growing up, I got in trouble for saying “sucks” or even (occasionally) “that stinks!” In those situations, my parents always claimed that the problem had more to do with my attitude than with the specific words. While I think it’s a little over the top to punish a kid for saying, “that stinks!” I have to say, I agree with the sentiment. At its core, I think profanity is about what’s in our hearts more than it is the specific combination of syllables we’ve uttered. Profanity is a verbal overflow of the unkind, ungracious, and unloving corners of our hearts.
To me, profanity is any time I use my words to hurt or demean others. It is any time I am careless or dismissive in what I say – whether that’s using a curse word flippantly as a filler in my conversation because I can’t think of better adjectives, or swearing out of frustration when I miss the green light. But I believe it can also be profanity to use a trite Christian platitude to dismiss a question I am too selfish or lazy to think about. Sometimes profanity is calling someone an insulting name or using a word like “fuck” to devalue something as beautiful and holy as sex. And sometimes, it is saying, “I’ll pray for you,” when we have no intention of doing so. Sometimes it’s telling someone, “God works all things together for good,” instead of sitting beside them and stretching your heart to help them hold their pain.
There’s a sort of trend among the new hipster evangelicals to embrace this new sort of “cool” Christianity that says it’s ok to like craft beer and make your own whiskey, to have tattoos and smoke pipes and swear. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. It’s that person who thinks that being a Christian who swears is such a notable attribute, they make sure they include it in the “about” section of their DIY blog. Even though I like some of these things too (tattoos and DIY projects for example), I want to make it clear that I am not writing this to become a member of the “Christians Who Curse” club where we congratulate ourselves on how we have rejected the legalism of our parent’s generation by fully embracing all we once stood against. This is not about championing the things we used to avoid but now embrace. It is about asking the right questions.
As a reader (and a writer) I believe that words have power. It is important to me to find and use the right word for a feeling, an image, a situation. And sometimes the right word isn’t a word you’d hear in Sunday school or from a pulpit. It might sound like I’m advocating cursing or encouraging people to do more of it, but really, that’s kind of the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m saying that if we see our words as precious and powerful, we will understand that the very power of these words is in restraint. Because when we reserve our strongest words to express some of our strongest, most complex feelings, in some small way we are redeeming them.
There’s a reason that “curse” words are curse words. It’s because they express something deeply wrong in the world, in our situation, in our relationships. They express brokenness, irreverence and contempt for something sacred. And sometimes, in our moments of greatest pain, of greatest need, of greatest confusion, I believe they can be the right words to express the depth of the wrongness of what we are experiencing.
There is a family I know whose 3-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. By all accounts, this family has handled the situation with astonishing grace and have become beacons of hope in their community. But I don’t think that grace diminishes the pain, the fear, the anger, and the questions they must also feel. And every time I see a Facebook update where they beg prayers because their son is in the hospital again – because he isn’t responding to his medication and their final resort will be a lung transplant (and how do we pray for a pair of 3-year-old lungs to become available?), because they’ve had to take their older children out of school because their son’s immune system is too fragile to handle to threat of the other kids bringing home germs – when I see these real, honest, big and terrible needs, I can’t help but feel angry at the responses. “I know your miracle is just around the corner! God works all things together for good! I’m believing that God has promised him a long life!”
This isn’t my story, and these words might be tremendously encouraging to that family (I hope that they are). But if that was me, those kinds of responses would make me sick (in fact, they do make me sick). If that was me, I would be screaming, “Bullshit! You don’t know that my miracle is around the corner. How could you possibly know that?!” I would want to say, “Yes, God is still good, yes, God works all things together for good, but all things are not good right now. Right now things are broken and wrong and I need you to meet me in that now, not tell me that I should be looking past it.” I would say, “God never promised any of us a long life. You can’t just believe something because you want it to be true!”
People don’t say these things to be cruel. Oftentimes I think they say them because they simply don’t know what to say. But that doesn’t make those words any less hurtful. I’m not the one in this situation, but if it was me, I think I’d rather have someone hear my desperation, hear that nearly unbearable pain, and instead of being frightened by my pain and by my need and trying to put a band-aid on it with a little, “Everything’s going to be ok,” simply sit across from me and look me in the eye and say, “That’s shit. I am so sorry.”