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July 15, 2009

An Orthodox Christian Attitude Towards Swearing

A few days ago a study was released that appeared just about everywhere in the news, where researchers at Keele University made the "discovery" that swearing can reduce the feeling of pain by increasing aggression. Behind the purpose of this study is to determine why evolution has made it common place around the world for humans to swear. Dr. Richard Stephens, who conducted the study at the university's school of psychology, concluded:

"We think it could be part of the flight or fight response. In the volunteers who swore, we also found they had an elevated heart rate, so it could be increasing their aggression levels. Increased aggression has been shown to reduce people's sensitivity to pain, so it could be swearing is helping this process."

It's hard for me to comprehend why grants are released for such studies when it should be known by experience that swearing is coupled with every high emotional state, whether its for pain or pleasure, aggression or humor. Because it is coupled with all of these high emotional states is what makes it so wrong for those who love virtue. For those who cannot maintain a sober and prayerful attitude, using loose sexual or blasphemous remarks (which most swears are) may help to increase the pleasure and decrease the pain, but these usually are associated with activities or thoughts that Christians are called to not associate themselves with. Should not the martyrs of Christianity be a testimony to the fact that even under extreme torture, both piety and virtue can be maintained and swearing and blasphemy avoided with a higher attitude than mere aggression?

However another news story was released at the same time about pop star Katy Perry and how she wrote her hit song "I Kissed A Girl" in order to rebel against her "comically strict" Evangelical parents. She talks in the article about being forbidden to swear in her childhood even over the most silly or trivial matters, such as not being allowed to use a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner or refer to her eggs as "devilled" (she had to call them "angelic eggs"). She explains further that if she stubbed her toe she had to say something like "Jiminy Christmas" and if for any reason she even said "Hell no" she would get in trouble.

What happened to Katy Perry through the influence of her parents is a common reaction Christians make to fight against the use of swearing. There is, however, a danger where Christians can turn such reactions against sin into moralizations that verge on the extreme (as we see above). In Katy Perry's case she was expected to meet the standards of her parents that was not a part of her own attitude. To say swearing or blaspheming is wrong for the sake of being wrong is dangerous because it is in reality an offspring of one's spiritual state. To focus on the particulars is like focusing on the letter of the law instead of its spirit. If it is not a natural outcome of one's spiritual state to refrain from swearing but merely a reaction against guilt, then in social settings, where swearing and blasphemy are common and such corny reactions as "Jiminy Christmas" are ridiculed, rebellion is to be expected as a reaction against guilt.

What, therefore, is the proper attitude Christians should take to be in such a state that swearing becomes unnecessary and even unnatural? As I read the above two stories a few days ago I chanced upon an interesting story in the life of Elder Paisios the Athonite that perfectly illustrates an Orthodox Christian attitude. I could not overlook the connections between the three stories, since the above two articles reveal the two extremes about swearing, while this story of Elder Paisios reveals how a sober and prayerful attitude makes swearing and blasphemy unnecessary and even almost impossible.

The following dialogue took place between the Elder and some young men who came to visit him:

-- "Elder, some devout young men are troubled while serving their military duty by those who are abusive and curse. What should they do?"

--"This requires discernment and patience. God will help.

"The wireless operator that I worked with in the army was a blasphemous, unbelieving doctor. Every day he would come to the administrative unit to brainwash me with ideas! He talked to me about Darwin's theory of evolution, and other such things; things entirely blasphemous. But after a particular event, he began to understand a few things.

"Once we were on a mission and we had loaded the wireless equipment and the carrier on a large mule. On a downhill and slippery path, I was holding on to the mule's tail and the doctor was pulling on the reigns. Suddenly, as the carrier slightly touched the animal's ears, the mule gave a strong kick with its hind legs and threw me with force to the side. As I recovered, I realized that I was still walking! The only thing I remember is shouting, "My Panagia!" [an expression of praise for the Virgin Mary]. Nothing else. The mule's hoofs were imprinted on my body; my chest was all black and blue. The animal had kicked with such force! The doctor was very surprised to see me walking. We continued on our mission.

"A little further on the doctor lost his footing on a rock, fell and could not get up. He started shouting, "My Panagia! My Christ! What will become of me, who will help me?" He was afraid of being captured. "Don't worry", I told him, "I will stay with you; if they capture you, they'll capture me." The poor fellow then started thinking, "Arsenios [this was the name of the Elder before becoming a monk], even though the mule kicked him so hard and threw him flying, did not suffer a thing, while I, who merely lost my footing, am now unable to walk".

"After a while, he got up with difficulty and I helped him as he limped. The others in the unit had moved ahead. The doctor got a good lesson that day. Every day he was spouting his blasphemies without restraint, and then, at a time of danger, instead of swearing he started shouting, "My Panagia, my Panagia!" The Panagia was now convenient for him! Another person, a motorcyclist in the army, had broken his leg twice and still he continued to curse and be abusive."

-- "Couldn't you tell him something, Elder?"

-- "What could I tell him? Here I was telling him nothing and he was constantly cursing Christ and the Panagia on purpose, just to annoy me. Once I realized that, I only prayed. And you know, while at first he and others cursed for no good reason, later, when they experienced some difficulty and were about to curse, they would bite their tongue! When someone is cursing, blaspheming, or being imoudent, it is better to pretend to be busy and not listening and to say the Jesus Prayer. For, if he sees that you are paying attention to him, he may continue to curse all the more, and you can then become a cause for his demonic influence. If, however, one is not impudent but is conscientious and curses out of a bad habit, you can say something to him. If, again, one is conscientious but has a great deal of egoism, you must be careful not to speak sternly to him but, rather, you have to be as humble as you can and speak to him with pain. What does Saint Isaac the Syrian say?

"'Confute those who dispute with you by the strength of your virtues and not by the persuasiveness of your words. By the meekness and quietness of your lips put the impudence of the obstinate to silence. Reprove the wanton by the nobility of your life, and those who are shameless as regard the senses, by the modest curbing of your eyes.'"

Within this dialogue Elder Paisios seems to answer all the questions the other two articles press towards for an Orthodox response. An Orthodox attitude towards pain, instead of inspiring aggressiveness which is barbaric, is best approached with courage and bravery while remaining true to yourself. Isn't this the attitude of the much-suffering Job who blessed God in his pain rather than "curse God" as his wife suggested? Isn't this the attitude that Jesus had when he was crucified, or is the above study suggesting that Jesus would have been better off swearing to lessen the pain on the Cross? Or what of the two thieves on the cross next to Jesus; who was really better off in enduring their pain? By suggesting that evolution guides our behavior reduces man to his animalistic passions which christians are called to rise above and transform. And by doing this within our own lives, we become an example to our friends, family and children that swearing and blaspheming can be controlled and ultimately unnecessary.