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Don’t Cuss—You Could Change a Life

Tom - November 27, 2007

The other day I was playing racquetball with my racquetball buddy Bob and he made a good shot so I said, “Nice shot.” If you’ve ever been in a racquetball court you know that the acoustics make it difficult to understand even a little bit of what people are saying. So to Bob “shot” sounded like another four letter word and he said, “Did you just use an obscenity?” I reassured him that I didn’t cuss, I said “Nice shaaawt.” He said something ridiculous like “Oh, for a second there I thought our little Mormon was growing up.”

If circumstances were different I might have called him on that comment and pointed out how it would be silly to regard the use of foul language as a sign of maturity. But that would be a bit much for a racquetball court at 6 a.m.

Nevertheless, we did have a short, echoey conversation about cussing, only about half of which did either of us understand. I said something about how even though I almost never cuss in public I’m actually not all that sensitive to other people cussing. I didn’t want him to think I was upset when he let one slip. The conversation ended with him saying something like, “I was just telling my wife the other day that I’m glad that I can’t use obscenities in our racquetball games. It’s changed my whole life.”

I didn’t probe any further to find out what he meant as the echo was bothering me and I had a whalloping to administer (my serve is devastating, just so you know), but I’ve wondered how his controlling his language for a couple of hours a week for the sake of this “little Mormon’s” delicate sensibilities could make much difference in his life. If I had to guess I’d say that maybe he found that his racquetball experience was more enjoyable when he wasn’t cursing about every missed shot and maybe his newfound language control spilled over into some of his other daily activities and he found that things like driving and working became more pleasant without all the negative language. But that’s just a guess.

This has me thinking about what being a “good example” means and why it’s important. We’re taught from the time we’re Sunbeams that it’s important to be a good example. The rationale that is often given is that people see us as representives of the Church and we want our actions to reflect positively on the Church. That’s OK, I guess. But perhaps more importantly, maybe our living according to the principles of happiness can inspire others to live according to those same principles and end up happier. Maybe our refusal to give in to peer pressure to do drugs or drink can help another kid have the courage to refuse. Or maybe our service to the poor can inspire others to give. And so on.

Ultimately, our main motivation for upholding the standards of our religion—in public or in private—should be that that is the way that God wants us to live, and God’s way is the way of happiness. But if we need more motivation, perhaps we can think of the small ways our actions can affect those around us. Bob’s comment reminds me that sometimes our quiet observance of the principles of our religion can bless others in ways we don’t see or intend, and that makes me want to be better.


  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been treated to the same charge of goody-two-shoes-ism for seemingly little things like language and dress and diet. It’s really, really, really helpful to hear about remarks like your friend’s, whether or not we ever know precisely what he had in mind.

    Comment by Reader — November 27, 2007 @ 5:50 pm

  2. Reader,
    It’s weird the kinds of things that people see as markers of maturity/adulthood. It’s absolutely absurd to associate cursing or drinking with maturity, but that’s the way it is in a lot of people’s minds. I don’t think these associations are conscious for most people. I bet if I brought it up Bob would concede that there would be no good reason to see me as more mature if I cussed more.

    Comment by Tom — November 27, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  3. This story reminded me of a story my seminary instructor in high school told in class.

    He was talking about his child getting a pet rabbit. Well one day the rabbit sprayed him while he was holding it. He claimed (I’m not gonna test said claim) that rabbit spray was somewhere in between cat and skunk as far as smell goes.

    He said that our usual g rated substitute curse words don’t cut it and you gotta let out a “dammit”. Yes he said “dammit” in seminary class.

    Comment by Dom — November 27, 2007 @ 11:07 pm

  4. People still play racquetball?

    Comment by JM — November 28, 2007 @ 5:57 am

  5. Dom,
    Rabbit spray may well require a “dammit” for some people, but I would probably use “What the hell?!” It just seems more appropriate.

    Comment by Tom — November 28, 2007 @ 6:11 am

  6. The rationale that is often given is that people see us as representives of the Church and we want our actions to reflect positively on the Church. . . . But perhaps more importantly, maybe our living according to the principles of happiness can inspire others to live according to those same principles and end up happier.

    I think the representative rationale can be reconciled with the change a life rationale if you follow the logical chain a bit further. We represent the church, yes, but it doesn’t end there. The church represents the Savior, and the Savior wants people to improve their lives and be happy.

    Unfortunately, too many fail to see this and regard missionary work as nothing more than some kind of PR/salesmanship game.

    Comment by JKC — November 28, 2007 @ 6:50 am

  7. JKC,
    You’re right. I think it’s unfortunate that we often don’t get to the fundamental reasons that being an “example of the believers” is important. Stopping short can leave us focused on the superficial.

    Comment by Tom — November 28, 2007 @ 8:10 am

  8. JKC-
    I was going to write exactly what you did.

    We’ve taken His name upon us. We represent Him directly. And I’ve always been uncomfortable when people try (not you, Tom, just people in general) to seperate the Church into a nice, categorical religious box, as if the Church, Christ, and members were different things. It’s not. It’s all connected and leads directly back to Christ (and, ergo, to Heavenly Father).

    Good post, Tom! I’ll have to remember it the next time I get angry with my kids for running around the grocery store…

    Comment by Cheryl — November 28, 2007 @ 8:36 am

  9. My son came in laughing one day because our neighbor and bishop had been up on a ladder trying to get a birds nest (and its occupants) out of his attic and he almost fell and he said a bad word. That guy’s a patriarch now.

    I don’t think my son lost any faith over it.

    I have two levels of cussing: most of the time, I don’t. I slip with mild cuss words regularly, though. (By most of the time, I don’t, I mean, hourly). They seem so appropriate at times.

    Then there’s another level, where I truly dislike myself when it happens. It’s like I get Tourette’s or become another personality. I use words descriptively in ways I never think them. Sometimes I take the Lord’s name in vain.

    And that is one time I give the Lord heartfelt apologies and beg Him to take this character defect from me.

    I grew up hearing really awful words, my parents called each other awful names and took the Lord’s name in almost every sentence. My grandparents, also.

    When I became active in the church, my brother-in-law pointed out to me that if I wanted to go to the temple, I should change my way of speaking. I said, “really? Do I cuss that much?” I didn’t even notice. He said it really bothered him that I said, “Jesus Christ!” all the time. Like if I stubbed my toe or something.

    Looking back, of course, I can’t believe I was so disrespectful of someone who I loved even as a child in that awful environment and didn’t realize how often I used that word.

    I don’t do that anymore, except for my Tourette’s situations.

    My non-Mormon friends don’t seem to look down on the church because I slip (although I don’t think they’ve heard me really lose it). I stand tall for my faith among them, but I respect theirs, as well. I think when I do slip and say, “shit” when I drop the pie on the floor, they feel a little relieved that they’re not so bad because a “good Mormon” is human, as well.

    Joseph Smith said (and I know, I know, you’ve probably heard me say this before) “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm and deals justly with his neighbor, than the long faced hypocrite.”

    All that aside, I do wish I were a person who didn’t think or speak that way. I respect my husband immensely because he doesn’t cuss.

    But everyone has flaws and if your non-Mormon friends dismiss the church because you have that particular flaw, they had a lot more against the church than that their Mormon friend let a bad word slip.

    Comment by annegb — November 28, 2007 @ 9:02 am

  10. To be clear: I don’t think cussing is a big deal. Having pristine language is not nearly as important or beneficial as being kind and charitable. I do see in my own life that using negative language exacerbates the negative feelings that brought on the negative language, which is probably why prophets counsel us not to use it, but I don’t think we’re committing grave sin when we let things slip. Or even when we use mild cuss words for comedic effect.

    Comment by Tom — November 28, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  11. I love early morning racquetball as well! I appreciate this post and I try to keep my language clean, generally. But sometimes, in private, I just feel this strange urge to cuss.

    Normally I put aside those feelings, but a few weeks back I was alone in my car driving somewhere, so I thought, what the heck, and let the profanities fly off my tongue like a flock of birds scattering at a sudden noise.

    What I did not realize was that my cell phone, sitting in my pocket, had rubbed up against something else, which dialed the last number called- my wife. Yes, that’s right, my intense string of profanities was heard in its entirety by my wife on the other end of the wireless call. I was pretty much busted!

    So now, I never swear in public OR in private, because who knows who will hear it. Besides, screaming those words at the top of my lungs was not nearly as fulfilling as I thought it would be…

    Comment by Jordan — November 28, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  12. Oh my, that’s hilarious!

    It could be said that you wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

    Comment by Tom — November 28, 2007 @ 9:46 am

  13. Yes- that could well be said… I said just about every bad word I know… Well, screamed them to be more precise. All with an unknown audience… Yikes!

    Comment by Jordan — November 28, 2007 @ 9:51 am

  14. I’m still laughing. I’ve done pretty much the exact same thing, but without the audience. My wife would be mortified to hear some of the things I’ve yelled while alone in my car.

    Comment by Tom — November 28, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  15. Jordan, that sounds made up, like a part of a sitcom or something, you know the ones where your sitting there watching it thinking, “oh yeah, nice convenient coincidence.” Did that seriously happen?

    Comment by Rusty — November 28, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  16. It sure did! And believe me, there was nothing convenient about it… I was in the woodshed until I convinced my wife to see the humor in it all…

    Stuff like this always happens to me, by the way. Must be the Lord’s way of keeping me in line?

    Comment by Jordan — November 28, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  17. It’s blogs like this that make Pres. Hinckley’s council about not getting angry so relevant. The only times I lose control of my tongue is when I lose control of myself and it drives me crazy that I don’t have always have control of myself because it’s always regrettable. Strangely enough, about the only times this happens is when I’m driving with poor directions by myself and when I play video games.

    Anyway, doesn’t cussing just show a lack of vocabulary?

    Comment by Bret — November 28, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

  18. I don’t swear much. My family finds it humorous if I swear and usually I don’t even realize that I said something bad. Once in a while I say something knowingly, but it never feels rewarding. Thanks for this blog. It is important to go beyond the example we should be to why we should be a good example. Thanks for the blog. I’ve lurked around to read your posts; it has been a while since you posted.

    Comment by Pam — November 28, 2007 @ 8:19 pm

  19. “Anyway, doesn’t cussing just show a lack of vocabulary?”

    I’ve heard this argument, and I think that it is sometimes true. On the other hand, sometimes, it demonstrates just the opposite: an awareness of the inadequacy of other vocabulary.

    Comment by JKC — November 29, 2007 @ 8:59 am

  20. Hey sis,
    Now that I know that there are crowds waiting with bated breath for my every contribution, maybe I’ll write more often. Probably not, though. I’m a total blog slacker lately, which corresponds with being a non-slacker in other aspects of my life. When I begin to blog diligently, you’ll know that I’m being a slacker in my school work.

    Comment by Tom — November 29, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  21. Keep up the school work. I will keep lurking and I look forward to reading your posts.

    Comment by Pam — November 29, 2007 @ 5:32 pm

  22. I tripped and stubbed my toe at work. When I looked up there were all these people staring at me. I told them I was alright. One person said, *We just wanted to see if you cursed.* All I said was *dang!* and gritted my teeth.

    A month after that there was a discussion in the break room about religion. I was not present. One person said that Mormons were not Christians. Antoher replied that *Floyd is a Mormon and he’s the best Christian I’ve seen.*

    They’re watching you and judging the Church by what they see you do.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — December 1, 2007 @ 5:09 am

  23. I never swear, unless I’m golfing with the bishop.

    Comment by karl pinnegar — December 8, 2007 @ 11:58 pm

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