Wednesday, February 10, 2010

potty words

Today, as with most Wednesdays, I listened to a man say stuff from a pulpit. It's always a man and it's always stuff and it's always a pulpit. Today, though, the man said something different. He said, "crap."

"Crap" is definitely a potty word. I know this because it refers, very specifically, to the brown stuff that goes in an actual potty. So as this man continued to ramble on about some other stuff, I started to think about potty words.

My attitude towards potty words has shifted significantly in the past few years. This is perhaps inevitable, since my way of thinking was shaped primarily by a childhood spent in perhaps the most conservative "Christian" environment possible - a missionary community in a foreign country - and I haven't been in that environment for quite a while.

As a child every adult I knew not only claimed to be a Christian, but also claimed to be the sort of Christian who would dedicate his or her life to the translation of the Christian scriptures into other languages. Because of this, they had a commonality of belief that you would be unlikely to find in even the most tight-knit Protestant church group in North America. Although these people (being people) did disagree about things, for the most part their commonalities were much, much greater than their differences. Like, say, how they felt about potty words... words like "crap."

As a result I grew up, along with all my friends, believing that there were certain words that you could not say without incurring the wrath of God. Oh, and I am not exaggerating there when I say "the wrath of God." We were IV-pumped full of Bible verses telling us that we should never allow anything unclean to come out of our mouths on pain of eternal burning fire - so much so that when in the summer after our Senior year my friend Seth and I paddled to the middle of the Amazonian lake on which we lived and I stood up and hollered out that you should never say words like (insert string of expletives here) it became something of an epic story that Seth still enjoys telling.

That was the only time I ever said any potty words in my first seventeen years of life, and in the ten years that followed I don't think I ever said another potty word without putting it in some kind of "quotes" - and even those occurrences were very, very rare. For the most part I just re-wrote any potty word I was quoting with one of its more culturally-bland counterparts.

So darn it to heck and back again, what changed? Well, in practice, not a whole lot. As a former English major, I absolutely love language and find most potty words to be unintelligent and uncommunicative. I am also still living in a culture that has fairly conservative mores regarding language. Unless I have a moral reason to do otherwise, I think it is very important to live at peace with my culture, and one of the ways to do that is to respect its traditions.

I guess that's where I've changed. I have come to view a lot of language as culturally-conditioned. I hear a guy say "crap" from the pulpit and my gut-level, culturally-induced reaction wants to judge him and say, "Oh, look! There's another lame-donkey youth pastor trying to be hip with the kids." But I don't know that. I don't know him or his culture of origin, and although I wasn't particularly into most of what he had to say, I felt it was important to assume the best of him... to assume that he spoke the way he did because it was natural and normal for him to do so.

In the same way, I feel it is important to grant the same grace to anyone else I encounter who uses language that, because of my upbringing, it is awkward for me to hear. The words hardly matter at all - what matters is the heart of the person and what they are trying to convey. "Unclean talk", I have come to believe, has more to do with words that are not spoken in charity, grace and love than it does with a particular set of syllables.

I have mentioned this before, but I can remember mentally recoiling from a friend who playfully punched me on the arm and said, "Barkey, you little motherfucker", when it was abundantly clear from the context that he was trying to communicate affection and gratitude for a favor I had done him. I am ashamed of this, and have tried to rectify this by "de-training" my gut reaction so that I can really listen to what people are communicating, instead of just judging them by the standards of my childhood culture - a culture that, truth be told, no longer even exists.

Language changes, and words have meaning only inasmuch as culture gives it to them. This places me in an awkward spot, sometimes, because I work in a culture that does share many (but not all) of my childhood biases against potty language. As an authority figure, it is important for me to respect that and maintain the preferences of the institution, while at the same time recognizing as I listen to students that while they spend a lot of their days in this culture they are not, as I was, fully immersed. They entertain themselves with words and ideas that were utterly taboo in my childhood world, and absorb from their culture and their parents lessons and attitudes that I sometimes still have difficulty comprehending as having anything to do with Christ.

But it is easy to quote Jesus and say that I should "Judge not, lest I be judged." It is quite another to follow through on this teaching when my gut-level, emotive reaction has been so long conditioned against the culture in which I now sometimes live. I do not want my son to grow up behaving and believing as I did, and I have realized that in order to change him, I have to first change myself. I have begun in a very tentative way to live with just a tiny bit of grace. I have realized that I don't have to recoil at potty language and am able to listen, instead, for the heart. I don't really care all that much, any more, how people arrange syllables. I yearn, rather, to understand what it is they are trying to get those syllables to convey.

It took years of poorly loving my wife and pushing her further and further away - often because of something as stupid as all of this "potty language" stuff - before I could begin to come to this point. Sometimes you have to get your face severely kicked in before you can finally begin to shut up and listen.

It has hurt like the bejeebers, but thank God for the kickin'. I really, really needed it.

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