> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Four-Letter Words

August 20, 2009 | by Rabbi Leiby Burnham

Is there anything wrong with swearing?

Danny finally sank into bed at 2 AM. He was exhausted from a hard day mowing lawns in the merciless sun, dinner and bedtime rituals with his three little ones, topped off with hours in front of a computer doing online courses. Just as he was drifting off into a blissful sleep, he remembered, "I left the cell phone on the counter and need it charged for tomorrow."

Stumbling through the dark house to the kitchen, he slammed his toe into the foot of a chair someone had carelessly left in middle of the hallway. A searing arc of pain shot from his foot to his brain, exploding somewhere above his left eye.

The pain was excruciating, but he remembered the advice of the good doctor. "#%@^!" He began to swear repeatedly, feeling the pain drain away. He got caught up in the cathartic exercise and continued a little bit louder. By now the pain had almost subsided, but suddenly he heard a voice behind him. "Daddy why are you saying bathroom words?"

How was he supposed to explain to his seven-year-old daughter that it was actually medicinal? She probably wouldn't understand the logic advocated by Keele University psychologist Richard Stephens who, after intensive research, said, "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear." She had no idea that dozens of prestigious newspapers and journals positively bubbled about the brilliance of this landmark study. TIME, the Scientific American, Reuters, Science News, US News and World Report -- the therapeutic benefits of swearing was practically a worldwide consensus.

Swearing out loud enabled them to keep their hands in the freezing water for 40 seconds longer, and experience less pain, fear, and anxiety.

The study involved a group of college students who put their hands in ice water to see how they tolerated the pain. When they were allowed to shout out their favorite swearword, they were able to keep their hands in the freezing water for 40 seconds longer, and reported experiencing less pain, fear, and anxiety than when they did the identical experiment without swearing. Interestingly, women had a more favorable response to swearing than men, which the researchers explained was based on the fact that men curse more than women, reducing some of its curative powers.

Based on this idea, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said, "That's one of the reasons that I think people shouldn't overuse profanity. It's not because I'm a prude, but because it blunts swearwords of their power when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions."

The ice-water study is based on the presupposition that there is nothing morally wrong or harmful with swearing. I'm sure we could do studies to show that people who smash crystal vases against the wall or slap someone across the face feel less pain when putting their hands in ice-water. We don't because we all know they're harmful.

Is there anything wrong with swearing?

In Jewish thought, words are not just words; they are our very essence. When the Torah describes God blowing a neshama, a soul, into man, Onkelos, the Torah’s primary translator, reads, "And He blew into him a speaking spirit." Our speech is our soul, the gift that separates us from the animal. It is through speech that we can express our Godly image inside of us.

Speech can elevate us to the divine, or bring us down to the profane.

But the higher something can take you, the lower it can drag you. Speech can elevate us to the divine, or bring us down to the profane, lower than the animal that never profanes itself. (There's a good reason swearing is called profanity.) When a person mouths swearwords, he is using powerful words, as seen by the pain relieving effects they have, but do they belong with the myriad other things that feel good, but are bad for you? Are they words that elevate us or deprecate us?

Potty words for kids remain potty words for adults. They still have the same dirty connotations, coarse insinuations, and base message. When a person swears, they are lowering themselves through abusing and sullying the greatest gift we have, our neshama, our speech.

In Hebrew the word for mouth is 'peh.' This is almost identically to the word for 'here,' 'poh,' which is spelled the same, but with different vowels. If you want to know where someone is, all you need to do is watch what comes out of his mouth. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a great sage living in Jerusalem, points out that the lips are the only part of the body in which the inner skin actually turns outwards; it is through that portal that you can tell what someone's inside looks like.

Anger Management

Secondly, Judaism has a very different approach to dealing with pain or anger. The Talmud tells us, "He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger -- regard him as an idol-worshipper" (Shabbos, 105b). The Sages explain that when we act in a negative way in response to anger, we are listening to the destructive pole of our psyche, instead of ignoring it. Each time we listen to it, it gets a bit more powerful, until he can get us to do things we never dreamt of doing, such as idol worship (interestingly, people who swear often say "God damn," which may not be idol-worship but is pretty close to it).

The healthier way to deal with pain and anger is to learn to control ourselves, and learn to soothe ourselves in a way that we would not be embarrassed to do in front of our seven-year-old. Instead of swearing when stubbing a toe, a person can exchange a string of epithets with a repeated declaration of “I’m stronger than that,” and focus on his strength in controlling himself instead of on the pain. Breathing slowly and deeply, and focused thinking/meditation techniques also help one focus away from pain.

A student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest leaders of 20th century American Jewry, inadvertently slammed the car door on his hand. Reb Moshe didn't utter a sound so that the boy wouldn't realize what he had done, which would have surely mortified and traumatized him.

Somehow, that type of response to pain seems to be much further along the evolutionary line than someone screaming out a stream of four-letter words.

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