This is how it happened.
I’m driving down the road the other night and a possum walks out in front of me. More than just about any other wildlife, possums freak me out. There’s something downright evil in the way they turn their long rat-like snouts to look at an oncoming car. Hit me. I dare you. Of course, most of them lose that particular battle, but they still startle me with their glares.
“Oh, (expletive deleted).” I slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid the creature.
My daughter, who has been playing quietly on her iPod in the backseat, says calmly in her little innocent voice, “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“I almost hit a possum.” I wonder why I didn’t just go ahead and hit the thing. Why go out of my way to avoid something that I don’t like? Maybe it’s a deep-rooted fear that this one won’t die. It’ll grab hold of the undercarriage of my car and wait until I park and, unsuspecting, climb out, exposing my ankle to its sharp teeth and claws…
“What?” My daughter can’t place what kind of critter I’m talking about.
“You know, those things we see squished on the side of the road all the time.” (I’m probably not going to get mother-of-the-year for that definition, but it had been a long day, and last I heard I’m not in the running away.)
“Eww.” She exclaims as only a dramatic five-year-old can. But she knows what I’m talking about now.
I laugh and continue driving. It’s only later that I realize I used a curse word in front of her and she didn’t react to it. She’s heard it before…from me. Have I desensitized her already to the power of profanity? The thought is sobering.
As a writer, I’m interested in language and how certain words have more power than others. I’ve read countless articles about words and how their sounds affect people in different ways. (Here’s a really interesting article about the subject: Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?) Profanity is fascinating because so many people have such adverse reactions to the ugly words. Including me. I flinch when I hear certain words. They’re unpleasant. They have power over me.
When I was in high school, I knew a boy who always said “sugar” instead of “(expletive deleted)”. I thought it was cute. I thought he was cute. I knew what he meant, but by replacing the expletive with a much sweeter (pun intended) word, he accomplished something many of us have yet to figure out how to do. He used the power of language in a positive way.
Which leads me to my vow. I’m going to be a less profane person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not horrible, but a “bad word” pops out every now and then. I’m not doing this because I think it’s wrong to curse, but because I want my kids to understand that words do have power over people. You can use them in a positive way (think speeches by great men like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK) and influence people for good. But if you go throwing profanity and other negative words around, eventually the people around you become desensitized to your voice. What you say fades away and becomes less important, and when you do have something positive to say, you’ll be lucky if anybody hears you.