I'm speaking with a woman who's lost her child. Let's call her Sue. She's describing the unbearable pain she's endured in facing the horror of having to live without the angel who so mightily filled her with joy.
At one point in our conversation, she starts to utter the word "fuck" and promptly stops herself. Just as she's about to reach a level of vulnerability indicative of the wails her soul is manifesting, she freezes and says "sorry."
She's sorry for saying "fuck" amid the loss of her child.
My response is swift and unequivocal: fuck that. Say whatever the fuck you want. Do not feel shame in expressing the grief that's tearing you apart.
I draw attention to this because our society has placed a terrifying gag order on being authentic in the expression of grief. In the grieving process, hiding replaces community. Platitudes replace honesty. The rush to "transform" loss into something "good" replaces the slow, messy, difficult process of living in the anguish of grief.
This is because we've stupidly declared that grief has a beginning, middle and end. In the process, millions of grieving people end up in hiding—lonely, desperate, and without support. The potential for shame becomes overwhelming, and how we choose to express ourselves via language has a direct correlation with how paralyzing that shame can be. In the expression of grief, people feel as if they're being "inappropriate" if they use language that might make others feel uncomfortable.
How Swearing Acknowledges Pain
As my writing has become more popular, I'll occasionally get an email that reads something like this: "I love your writing, but the profanity makes me uncomfortable/shocks me/makes it impossible for me to share it."
While I understand that my words might occasionally be jarring, my response is always the same:
That's The Fucking Point
Of course I swear in my work. I don't do it to be sensationalist or hyperbolic; the nature of my writing needs none of that. I don't do it consciously either; as in, I don't think "shit, adding a fucking fuck to this sentence will really spice this fucker up."
No. When I enter the landscape of my soul—which writing allows me to do like no other artistic expression can—I tap into every available emptiness, every longing, every memory of my life's journey. This means that I come face to face with the hell that resides inside continually, in a cycle of love and anguish.
As I begin to express that cycle and offer myself via language to the people I serve, a juggernaut of emotion arises within me. This is where my best work comes from. It beseeches me to reveal it, because it knows it’s going to have an impact. It's going to touch lives, whether one life or a million.
The first life it's going to touch is my own. This can't happen if I’m censored in any way.
I repeat: in any way. I write about the darkest parts of the human experience. The realest of the real. My voice demands that I give all of myself, in every way I can.
I'm giving voice to the rawest, most vulnerable experience of being human. This means every fucking word must be available to me in my arsenal.
There's no time for flowery bullshit masquerading as "compassion"; I mean, look, there’s far more tenderness in the word "fuck" than in the word "sunshine."
When used with purpose, fuck is vulnerable. Sunshine is saccharine.
What so many fail to understand is that masking our pains with flowery language is far more damaging than any swear word could ever be.
In my process, the words weave their way in and out of the chasms of my pain, so when I want to unleash a wail of fucks onto the page, that’s what happens.
I need you to do the same, in whatever form that takes.
Language is one of the greatest purveyors of the human experience. In the field of adversity, every word gets its say. Some of my peers use profanity, some don't. Writers like Megan Devine, Mark Liebenow, Esme Wang and Rene Denfeld use it little, while writers like Jennifer Pastiloff, Julien Smith, Justine Musk and Cheryl Strayed are more liberal in their use of it. I could give a hundred other examples of either, but I'm confident all of these writers would agree that our experience must be expressed authentically, especially in adversity.
In loss, the suppression of any language contributes to the abolition of grief's expression, and that is fucking unacceptable.
The "Oh Darn" Effect
Remember the action flick Speed from the mid-90s?
Remember the scene where Keanu is describing the bomb on the bus and he's having Alan Ruck narrate the specifics of what he sees to Jeff Daniels?
When Keanu comes across the bomb and realizes it's armed, he says:
"Fuck Me." A perfectly appropriate response.
The timid, frightened Ruck freezes and says "Oh Darn."
Ruck's response gets a laugh because it's absurd. He's using feeble language to describe a terrifying situation, and it doesn't work. Which response is the audience supposed to think is more, you know, human?
All language must be available when your life's been torn apart. That's just how it is. I talk to people in great pain all the time. Do you really think most people say “oh darn” when they receive a cancer diagnosis, or lose their spouse, or go bankrupt?
Would people really assume that as I was listening to Sue, I should have said: "I'm sorry Sue, but please refrain from saying fuck as you bare your soul to me. That sort of language really isn’t appropriate right now.”
THAT would be fucking offensive.
Swear words are powerful. They're important. They inform the lexicon of language in meaningful ways. They inform me. I’m grateful for them. You can be too.
Swear words can even bring us closer together. As linguist Dr. Monika Bednarek has observed: "Swearing is important for creating close relationships, friendship or intimacy with others, and bonds can be formed around it." This could not be more true than in tragedy.
Swear words engender vulnerability via the authentic expression of every ache that resides inside of us. Are they the only words that achieve this? Of course not. But they are powerful, bold arbiters of the tribulations we encounter in life. Some of the greatest moments of connection I've ever felt amid devastation have come when my friends were willing to use harsh language to acknowledge a harsh situation. While no words can possibly articulate the horrors we endure comprehensively, profanity shines a light on these horrors. By acknowledging that they're there.
Profanity and Culture
In an excellent piece Mark Manson wrote on the role of profanity, he notes that swear words: "are a group of words or ideas that society has gotten together and designated as inappropriate or undesirable."
Well guess what: society has deemed that the expression of grief is undesirable, because it is uncomfortable. Society has also deemed that its expression is inappropriate outside of very strict controls: that it must be expressed in private, that it must not disturb conventional norms, and that it has an expiration date.
Those who grieve outside of these superficial and disgustingly arbitrary controls are often labeled as victims or wallowers and are usually shamed, marginalized, or forgotten.
I won't fucking stand for that, and you shouldn't either.
Swear words are uncomfortable and even shocking, but this is exactly why they're so powerful: they can be incredibly effective in expressing the shock and discomfort that tragedy actually is. They demand that our wounds are felt, expressed, and most importantly, acknowledged. They encourage engagement, not suppression.
If there's one thing I've learned in all my years speaking with people in pain, it's that the suppression of pain destroys lives.
Don't destroy your life by hiding your losses in a bed of externally-imposed bullshit. It's your life. You get to grieve in your own way, in your own time, using your own language.
Instead of avoiding the realities of loss, I long for the day we're more shocked that a heartbroken soul isn't expressing her grief.
We can only get to this place if we're willing to expose our deepest wounds, in vulnerability. Swear words help us achieve this, because swearing is subversive. It demands attention. It takes a stand. In grief, it challenges the pathetic cultural narrative of the happy ending, where every story of loss must be resolved in a certain way, on a specific timetable. This is bullshit.
If grief has enveloped you—if there's something stuck in your heart—give it voice. Swearing has the ability to attest to our wounds, because it digs deep under the surface. It acknowledges the reality of the hell we all face in life, and bears witness to the terror loss births in us.
In the end, it's your decision whether you say "fuck" or "oh darn." But please never, ever believe that you should repress the tragedies you've endured.
When life fucking sucks, you have every right to fucking express it.
No one can take this power away from you but you.
I'm Tim, and The Adversity Within is a blog dedicated to examining the topic of resilience in the face of adversity, while inspiring readers to stand headstrong in their grief and fight for their own evolution. Living with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I explore topics like post-traumatic growth, survival, and self-reliance. No one should face adversity alone. Subscribe to my mailing list below for free weekly writings delivered to your inbox, and follow me along on Facebook and Twitter.