I was at an intersection waiting for the light to change when it happened. On the other side of the intersection, a tiny woman rode a bicycle into the left turn lane. She looked no older than twenty-five. She was losing control of her bike, which was too big for her. Just as she put a foot on the ground to steady herself, a blue Hyundai entered the intersection from her right. The car turned left. The angle was too tight and I knew what was going to happen. The car wasn’t going that fast, but it knocked the girl’s bike out from under her and onto the curb. Her body rose in ten-foot arc before hitting the concrete a few feet away from her bike.
“Oh my God!” I screamed in a guttural voice that I’d never heard before. I pulled to the side of the road and dialed 911. My hands were shaking and I misdialed twice before getting it right. The operator told me that three other calls about the accident had already come in. I didn’t leave until I heard sirens, driving home more slowly than ever. I was all but certain that I saw someone die for the first time in my life. You hear about people surviving terrible accidents, but, from what I saw, it seemed unlikely.
I was preoccupied with the accident for a month. The frailty of human life became more real to me than ever. My own recent, miserable experience with back surgery had undone the myth of my own invincibility. Now, I had witnessed how quickly things can end for us. How oblivious we are to our own vulnerability.
After a few weeks, my defense mechanisms started working again. I still prayed for the woman and her loved ones, but my own dismay began to fade. That’s when I became curious about the words that exploded from my mouth when I saw the accident. I never say, “Oh my God.” Don’t get me wrong—in the right company, I swear more than 1980s-era Eddie Murphy. That’s part of why I was surprised. I have an entire arsenal of profanity at my disposal for situations of shock, fear, and frustration. Why didn’t I reach for one of my typical four-letter words or, better yet, concoct a creative swearword stew? Before the accident, if you’d ask me to predict what I would say in this situation, I would have given two to one odds on the s-word, three to one on the f-word, and even more money on a colorful combination of foul language. Never, however, would I have imagined saying, “Oh my God.”
I refuse to say the Lord’s name in vain. You might think that a challenge given my otherwise filthy mouth, but I was raised in an especially legalistic Southern Baptist church. If you grow up learning about the letter of the law instead of the spirit, you became adept at controlling specific behaviors. I’m glad I never developed the habit of saying “Oh my God,” or any of its variations. Not only does it break the third of the Ten Commandments, it makes me uneasy, even when other people do it. God is very real to me. If I say, “Oh my, God,” I believe that God pays attention. Job found this out the hard way. He and his friend tossed God’s name around glibly until God showed up in a whirlwind and said, “You talkin’ to me? I thought you were talkin’ to me. There’s no other deity here, so you must be talkin’ to me.” I don’t want to invoke God’s name unless I’m ready for God to show up.
Maybe that’s why I said “Oh my God!” when I saw that girl get hit by a car. It was an utterance from a primitive place. Maybe a part of me, a part deeper than conscious thought, knew that this situation was too serious for four-letter words. Only a three-letter one would suffice. It makes me wonder if people always take the Lord’s name in vain when they use the phrase. If you drop “OMG!” into a text to a friend about the cutest shoes you just bought, then, yeah, you’re breaking a commandment. But if you say it in times of great fear, wonder, or joy, maybe part your soul is popping out of your mouth. That might be why people say it during sex. Sex is sacred and powerful, so it makes sense that people cry out to God in a moment of ecstasy. Perhaps there’s a part of us, separate from our conscious minds, that knows more about what’s holy and what’s not. Even atheists say, “Oh my God” sometimes. It signifies a deep longing for God. Whether we ignore that need or embrace, the plea still rises to our mouths unbidden.
Oh my God, I hope that woman is alive and doing fine.
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