When we first picked up our puppy 1o years ago, the woman who sold him to us said “good boy” to him as she said farewell. I, dogless until that moment, thought to myself, “Oh, right, that’s what people say to dogs.” Over the years, it has become a significant part of my silly patter to him: that he is so good, the goodest dog, a good boy, and, as he ages, I sometimes tell him he’s a good man.
This year I went back to school to study theology. Or rather, I went to the desk in the corner of my bedroom to study theology on Zoom. It felt like the right move pre-COVID and all the more as my regular work experienced COVID cuts.
I’ve laughed at myself this year because, at the same time as I’ve been learning about church history and devotional classics, I’ve found myself starting to swear like a sailor.
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I didn’t curse much before this. I never had to rein in a potty mouth around my kids because the words just never came to mind. It wasn’t that I was entirely against swearing – I’ve long heard the health benefits of letting off a string of profanities – it just felt like a failure of imagination and vocabulary to have to resort to such words to express your needs and feelings. It pays to enrich one’s word power, as Reader’s Digest would tell you.
Not 2020 me. Nor the 2021 model. Instead, I now curse with creative abandon and striking regularity, and no longer simply when I’m frustrated. I said, one day, to my husband that it seemed counter-intuitive that as my theological studies flourished, so too had my profanity. You’d imagine a person’s swearing might decrease, but hell no.
I’ve got a couple of theories about why my language has become more profane as my studies have become more sacred. One is that both theological studies and swearing require a kind of emotional honesty. There’s not one Church Lady among my classmates. There are atheists and agnostics as well as academics and future and present clergy. But they are people wrestling with the nature of a higher power and the implications of having faith in such a power. They’re – we’re – people having to be honest about their own prejudices, wishful thinking and doubts as well as our faith. There is an honesty to this program that might go unsuspected in popular imagination: it’s a lot closer to Alcoholics Anonymous than Dana Carvey’s pursed-lipped hypocrisy. And I’ve come to see that same honesty perhaps is found in the lament and honest prayer of expletives.
Lately, I’ve started to wonder if my bad words come out of another place, which brings me back to my dog. Scratching and begging for food at the table aside (his besetting sins), he is a good boy. But it was Carl Jung who identified how we humans live our conscious lives trying to be good dogs, making the best choices we can (pay attention on Zoom while supervising online school, wash your hands, reply to the emails, recycle, Zoom some more, lather, rinse and repeat). At the same time, though, another part of us rebels and requires expression. Jung called it the shadow side of the human personality. And as much as it sounds like a new way to guilt us, our shadow isn’t so much bad, as opposite. Much as an actual shadow inverts the exact shape of whatever stands between it and the sun.
And sometimes, when we’ve been the goodest dog for too long, we need somehow to find a balanced expression, to let ourselves be fully human, rather than machine. Think of our shadow as freedom rather than a crime.
I’m not sure whether my swearing stems from my theology studies, my complete compliance to public health directives, or some combination. But, I am increasingly becoming weary of behaving well. A friend of mine has beagles that regularly climb on her counters to eat butter and other forbidden foods. “Make better choices!” she yells at them. As for me, I want to make worse choices. At the very least, I want to stop having to constantly make good choices, to ease up on the constant weighing of risk and responsibilities.
I don’t have to scratch hard to know that I’m not the goodest dog. In fact, part of why I study theology is because I feel in my bones what the voice of my generation said in the book actually called Generation X: “Now — here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God.”
Being so good wears on me, and apparently requires the honest corrective of swearing to balance me out. It also lies in the honest searching place that is theology, groping and hoping that there really is a good dog – damnit – a good God.
Susan Fish is a novelist, editor and theology student who lives with her husband, dog and young-adult children in Waterloo, Ont.
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