I love this piece and I love this girl. It has been an honor to watch her learn to swear.
I learned to swear last summer.
I had tried for a long time, muttering Mumford and Sons under my breath to get used to the taste of the taste of the things I wasn’t supposed to say. I had toyed with four-letter words when I wanted to shock or when I thought them necessary for emphatic effect, but every time the words left my lips, they sputtered with hesitation, a pause that made it clear my words were not my own.
The dam broke when a woman I respected told me I had to learn to swear properly. She stood on a chair and told me to cuss, to rage, to shout at all the things that had stifled my words and stopped up my emotions. At that moment, I realized that, actually, I didn’t have to swear if I didn’t want to, because my words were mine. In realizing I didn’t have to swear, I suddenly could. It wasn’t the words themselves that were stopping me. It was my right to choose them.
It was my agency – my ability to choose my own path, verbally, physically, and emotionally – that had been taken from me.
Agency can be taken from us in a variety of ways. It can be taken by force. It can be taken by illness or addiction. Every subduing of another’s will – physically or emotionally – is a crime of power, and it is wrong.
But our freedom to choose, to speak, to act can also be stolen in much more subtle ways. It can be taken by cutting words that constrict our choices. By ideologies that make obedience, not wisdom, their cornerstone.
These kinds of thefts may not leave physical marks, but their conditioning can leave emotional imprints that reach to our very core. They teach us to own and identify with our powerlessness, our fear, our shame rather than our strength. They break our spirits while claiming to make us whole.
They warp our understanding of freedom, wholeness, health, and beauty until our consciences become our blindest guides.
Unlearning this takes hard work. I shut my eyes tight every time I act in ways that aren’t clearly spelled out in the rule books. I can only do it by holding tight to the arms of friends who won’t let me settle for a pre-scripted life anymore.
I do it by storing up images and items and phrases that make me strong, things that cannot be bent by the pressure of others. Mantras like “I am not wrong,” “that is not OK,” and “I am in charge of my own words” (and my own body, of course, because the two are intertwined) become my strongholds when someone walks over my boundaries or threatens my agency with shame or fear.
Sometimes, it takes a few foul words to begin the long, slow unraveling of a worldview that conforms us to an unhealthy ideal. Honesty and truth can’t always be expressed without allowing their rough edges to show.
But I know there is as much power in a single, honest cry of “fuck that shit” when times are hard as there is in the heartfelt prayers I said growing up.
There is as much holiness, too.
Elizabeth grew up on the more moderate fringes of conservative Christianity in the US, and then explored Europe for five years while she studied abroad. Now, she explores her past, present, and future on http://ellieava.tumblr.com/