“The Sacred in the Profane” by Mark Harris

 February 18, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

Opening Words – from  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Francie had heard swearing since she had heard words. Obscenity and profanity had no meaning as such among those people. They were emotional expressions of inarticulate people with small vocabularies; they made a kind of dialect. The phrases could mean many things according to the expression and tone used in saying them. So now, when Francie heard themselves called . . . [a derogatory name], she smiled tremulously at the kind man. She knew that he was really saying, “Goodbye—God bless you.” 

Reading – from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

[The classic story of teenage angst – it follows the adventures of Holden Caulfield. In this scene in New York, he has decided to run away to the West, and is planning to see his little sister, before he leaves. She wants to go with him, but ultimately he decides not to go.  The novel was controversial at the time of its publication for the amount of swearing it contained]

. . . I started walking up the stairs to the principal’s office so I could give the note to somebody that would bring it to her in her classroom. I folded it about ten times so nobody’d open it. You can’t trust anybody in a goddam school. But I knew they’d give it to her if I was her brother and all.

While I was walking up the stairs, though, all of a sudden I thought I was going to puke again. Only, I didn’t. I sat down for a second, and then I felt better. But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them–all cockeyed, naturally–what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that’d sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed. I hardly even had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I was afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I’d written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally. Then I went on up to the principal’s office. . .

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible. . . .

[Later, ] While I was waiting around for Phoebe in the museum, right inside the doors and all, these two little kids came up to me and asked me  if I knew where the mummies were. [and I ended up helping them find the place]. . . You had to go down this very narrow sort of hall with stones on the side that they’d taken right out of this Pharaoh’s tomb and all. It was pretty spooky, [ and the kids] stuck close as hell to me, and the one that didn’t talk at all practically was holding onto my sleeve. “Let’s go,” he said to his brother. “I seen ’em awreddy. C’mon, hey.” He turned around and beat it. “He’s got a yella streak a mile wide,” the other one said. “So long!” He beat it too.

I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another “Fuck you.” It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.


Most of us who are interested in the Civil War or American History have a preconceived notion of the kind of person Ulysses S. Grant was. Before I began reading the best-selling biography by Ron Chernow, I conjured up an image of a scruffy, coarse, rough-hewn character, who chomped on a cigar and consumed many shots of whiskey resulting in frequent drunkenness, and being a soldier, I am sure I thought he swore incessantly. I now know that image is mostly inaccurate, and especially so of the young Grant who was raised in a strict Methodist home, where no cursing was tolerated. Grant once wrote, “It has been a principle of mine never to swear at any time in my life.” Even as a boy the worst phrase he ever uttered was “Thunder and lightning!” This is sort of like one of us saying, Golly, Gee, more Gomer Pyle than Bruce Willis. The young General Grant was a man who promised his mother when he left for West Point, that he would never resort to profane language while in school. Once someone provoked Grant into an argument, and he said “Darn.” It haunted him for a week. He also avoided coarse jokes and stories that demeaned women. Respectful of women, and no demeaning words sounds the opposite of the current holder of the Presidency, who seems to thrive on using derogatory words to humiliate and insult others.

Perhaps we now expect coarse language to be used in the narrative of novels, the lyrics of popular songs and the dialogue of movies. Maybe we conclude that this kind of swearing is the way life is, and we should just tolerate it. Maybe it began with Holden Caulfield, whose role in The Catcher in the Rye inflamed censors for its regular use of profanity.  Yet I certainly learned as a boy that swearing was wrong, and even if my father and older brothers cursed like demons, it was something they did in private, informal conversations, man to man, but never in a public setting, and certainly not in front of a woman. My own experience was similar to the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where the boy Ralphie has to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that a Red Ryder BB gun really is the perfect Christmas gift.  In one particular scene in the movie, Ralphie is helping his father fix a flat tire, and Mr. Parker accidentally flips the hubcap out of Ralphie’s hands with the lug nuts in it. Ralphie, as an adult, is the narrator of the movie, and he continues, “Oh! For one brief moment, I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic, and then they were gone.” Back in real time, Ralphie says: “Ohhhh fuuudge.” Only, the adult narrator Ralphie says, “I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word. His stunned father says, “What did you say?”  His father then scoots him into the car. And Ralphie as the narrator says, “It was all over – I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.” 

Once they were home Parker tells his wife, “You know what your son just said? . . . I’ll tell you what he said. . .”  And then he proceeds to whisper the “F-Dash-Dash-Dash” word in Mrs. Parker’s ear, and she screams in shock. The scene switches to Ralphie with soap in his mouth, again as adult narrator, “Over the years, I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference is for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor; heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness. Lifebuoy, on the other hand—“ Then the scene finishes when Mrs. Parker demands the name of the person from whom Ralphie learned the swear word. First, we learn where Ralphie really heard the word. “Now, I had heard that word at least 10 times a day from my old man. My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. But I chickened out, and I blurted out the first name that came to mind: Schwartz!”  Then Mrs. Parker called Mrs. Schwartz, and told her that Ralphie learned the word from her son, and in the background, we hear her smacking her son who screams and bawls in pain. Narrator Ralphie concludes: “Another shot of mysterious, inexorable official justice.”

That was the kind of justice that was meted out to me if I swore. I knew if I used any of those forbidden words, I would pay.  While it wasn’t the guillotine that Ralphie imagined, it was literally the soap in the mouth to symbolically wash away the dirty words. That was always the threat I received from my mother. “Do you want the soap?” As a parent, I even repeated what I had experienced as the classic punishment for swearing with my son Joel. When I threatened to use it with our boys, Andrea said it was akin to child abuse. There is also a hierarchy of swear words. There are the substitute words like darn or jees. Nice, but ineffective. And the somewhat less offensive words like the one that is a synonym for waste product #2, or what my boys will tell you is my preferred swear word which coincidently is the one the President used to refer to those s – – – hole countries that he would prefer we not receive immigrants from.  There are those that are literally a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, taking the name of the Lord in vain.  Traditionally this is the religious crime of blasphemy, the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God. This reminds me of the old Unitarian Universalist joke that the only time we ever hear the words Jesus Christ in the UU church is when the janitor stubs his toe, and cries out in pain. This is also where we have the origin of a church member’s unwillingness to swear in front of a minister. I had a member in Milton, who always apologized when she said something as innocuous as damn, because she could not bring herself to violate the old dictate of not swearing in front of the priest, which I suppose was either to avoid damnation, or less likely, to damage the purity of innocent clergy ears.  Finally, there were swear words, like Ralphie implies, that were the pinnacle of profanity, like the F word.  

What is it about using profanity that causes such turmoil?  As maturing children, it seemed like uttering swear words was a rite of passage. If we swore with our friends it meant we were tough and strong, and no one was going to mess with us. If we knew swear words we took it as a sign of maturity, and it meant that we were growing up, and understood the adult world of knowledge and sexual awareness.  There was also the temptation of trying out the forbidden in violation of parental and Biblical injunctions that even though these words were strictly verboten, it was that very taboo that made them alluring, magical, even holy. In some ways it seemed that swearing was among the most heinous crimes a child could perpetrate.  I have never seen my father so angry as when I once made the mistake of using the B word on my mother. He was furious, and his anger alone, was enough to make me never ever call her a name again.  Yet we never really learned why swearing was supposed to be bad for us, and in fact, there is no evidence that it harms children. For many of us, it is obvious that trying to suppress it was not the best way to deal with it.

One author claims that we are living in an age of profanity, and listening to many of the rap music artists would certainly give that impression. Swearing is everywhere, and many of us have either become immune to it, or accepted its pervasiveness. The popularity of profanity has now led to studies which purport to show that swearing is good for us. While most of us learned that swearing was a sign of lack of intelligence, that is simply not the case. I think we typically assign stereotypes to perceived frequent swearers, like soldiers or sailors, low class men, trashy women, or the unintelligent.  We equate the frequency of swears with low I.Q. This is patently false, as the greater your intelligence, the greater your ability to swear.  The more words you know, the more swears you know.  It is sophisticated obscenities. This brings me to the first good thing about swearing.  It allows us to let go of inhibitions.  Yes, you too, can stop being an uptight person, if you would let loose with a few swears. Try repeating a few in a prayer mantra, or scream at the top of your lungs. You can skewer all the politicians, and all the bad drivers. Get it out of your system, and let those emotions show. One parishioner wrote to me that swearing helps clarify certain situations, and ranting helps them carry on in order to complete a task, such as a tax return.

If swearing can help us clear our minds, its most valuable service may be how much it helps us deal with pain. Recently most of you know I had a bowel obstruction which required emergency surgery. Prior to my surgery on a Wednesday night, I had spent the entire previous night in a sleepless state, accompanied by an incessant gnawing pain in my gut.  While Ibuprofen can be a wonder drug, it was not especially helpful untangling by insides. So after a visit to my doctor, followed by some tests, followed by an ordeal in the ER, I finally ended up on the operating table. This was the perfect extended period to test the hypothesis that swearing helps relieve pain. It does!  I know I am a small control group, but my experience is supported by studies of how long people can hold their hands in cold water, which show that people can keep their hands in freezing water longer, if they swear. Pain management? Try swearing as a distraction.  Think about what happens when you hurt yourself.  Hit your head on a cabinet? Stub your toe? What do you do? Most of us swear instinctively. It is a quick antidote to the pain.

It is beginning to seem that swearing is a good thing if it relaxes us, and helps with pain management.  According to Steven Pinker we have covered one of the uses of swearing which is cathartic. A second use is emphatic, or that we swear to emphasize something that is especially worth emphasizing to give weight to its importance.  In the current movie hit, “The Post,” the focus in the film is on whether the newspaper will publish the Pentagon Papers. In one crucial scene, all the senior staff are waiting in editor Ben Bradlee’s home when box after box of these papers which delineate the government’s clandestine involvement in Vietnam arrive.  Reporter Meg Greenfield surveys the overwhelming scene, and responds, Holy Shit! A third use that we might consider positive is idiomatic, a signal that a conversation that includes swearing is an informal one.  You are among friends. This relates to what I said earlier about relaxing inhibitions.  When we swear around one another we show that we can let down our defenses and develop trust. When I sit down to have a beer with you, and we are watching soccer, I say that player was  “F . . ing offside,”  I impart feelings of ease and comfort, a relaxed inside knowledge.  When we are comfortable with one another, swearing comes naturally.    

Is this enough to prove that there is sacred in the profane?  If we can be more relaxed and natural with each other, and even manage difficult times with definitive emotional responses, then perhaps we, too can affirm that swearing is good for us. Maybe it is just accepting the coarseness of life.  We know that this is just the way things are, or as Lenny Bruce once said, “Life is a four letter word.” But what about limits? Do we want a world where nothing is obscene or profane?  We have seen a President, for instance, the original inspiration for this sermon, who insults, berates, and demeans others, and consequently creates an atmosphere where this kind of behavior becomes acceptable as a means of public discourse.    Is this the kind of world we want? 

The idea of everything becoming a four letter word is what ultimately concerns Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. This book was published the year I was born, and its use of language has been controversial ever since. It led to its being banned in libraries and schools. The book contains a flurry of swear words followed by statements about people being phonies. He uses swear words constantly, but he reaches a limit when he sees the F word scribbled all over the school walls and museum tombs. He has a view of childhood innocence being damaged by phony adults, and, in his mind, this confirms that.  He sees everything that is sacred being corrupted, or made profane, down to even his own tombstone when he dies.  Swear words are connected to his portrayal of sex, which he sees as dirty or degrading. He imagines a “perverty bum” sneaking into Phoebe’s school at night to write the dirty message on the wall. But of course it is most likely that a student at the school vandalized the wall. The excessive swearing is a symptom of Holden’s immaturity, but he does recognize how everything that is sacred can be profaned by such demeaning words. This is the real issue. How do we accept the necessity and even the benefits of swearing while also managing to keep life holy, and worthy?

Steven Pinker names two additional uses of swearing; beyond catharsis and emphasis and as a language among friends. First, is abusive swearing where the intent is to hurt the other by defaming their personal worth and dignity.  I might say you are a no good S.O.B., or you come from a S – – – hole country, meaning you and your world are worthless. The final use is dysphemistic which conveys a contempt for another. You use language to inflame and to convince others to affirm your hatred for this person or group. You might say that the person is a nut job or a loser and use profanity to get others to feel good about demonizing another human being.  In the presidential election there were all kinds of words used or implied to impugn the character of Hillary Clinton, and convince others to chant, “Lock her up.”

Swearing has both attractive and negative elements to it because it holds such emotional power.  We can use it to convey our frustrations and anger at something that upsets or hurts us, and in many ways only a swear word can carry enough pure emotional force to convey the true feeling. This is how it helps us cope and helps us connect.  Unfortunately, swearing automatically pushes emotional buttons for some, and usually it is a negative button.  This is why in relationships we must remember that the words we use reflect the character behind them.  If the words show a lack of respect for others, or are degrading of religion, sex, identity, or ethnic heritage then they do become as vulgar and immoral as we thought of them in the 19th or 20th centuries. This is profane profanity, or swearing as an attack that degrades us all.

But we can use the special emotional force of profanity to convey our anger or frustration or pain, and doing so really can help us cope, clear our mind, or connect us with one another. This is swearing as an emotional balm that is never directed at a person. It is employed as a distraction from affliction, or as a rejection of formality; signaling ease with one another.  These are not swears as weapons, or as ways of attacking or judging. What is the context of your swearing, and is it used to help you overcome something, to come through some turmoil or torment, and be restored to yourself? That can be sacred work, based on finding your way back to love, intimacy with others, gaining a soul that is real and boasts honest emotions and integrity of feeling.  Mark Twain once said, “The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way.” Presumably he would include women in his kind-hearted profanity, and ask that we join together in trying to love the hell out of this world.

Closing Words – from Luke 6:44a-45

Each tree is recognized by its own fruit … A good [wo]man brings good things out of the good stored up in h [er] heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.