I recently attended a concert, and sitting next to me was a man I recognized, but had never spoken to at length. I turned toward him, and said,
“Hi. How’s life?”
“How’s life?” he answered. “What kind of question is that? How do you think my life is?”
Taken aback, I mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“Just look around you,” he said. “It’s been raining for the last two weeks, the economy sucks, and it’s freezing in here. That’s how my life is.”
I looked down at my program, and with a forced smile said, “Well, enjoy the concert.”
“Yeah, OK,” he answered, as the lights dimmed.
I felt angry and embarrassed, but soon began to wonder about this man. Perhaps he, or someone in his family, is ill, I thought. Maybe he lost his job, or suffered a recent tragedy. Maybe he has a drinking problem. After the concert I saw a friend who knows this man, and asked her about him.
“As far as I’ve heard, he and his family are fine. And you know, he’s quite well off. Why do you ask?” she said.
“I just spoke with him, and he seemed very upset about something”.
“Oh, now I get it,” she said. “Don’t worry. He’s a world-class complainer. If he’s not complaining about something, he’s not happy. Frankly, no one can stand to be around him, so consider yourself lucky that this was your only encounter.”
Most of us probably know someone like this man; one who finds a reason to complain, even when sitting comfortably with his family at a concert in a wealthy
But wait a minute, you might say, these are simply statements of fact. My back does hurt. Politicians are crooks. The economy does suck. Should I ignore things that are problems, and simply pretend that everything is OK? Isn’t that both unrealistic and irresponsible? How will things ever get better if we don’t point out problems?
Well, let’s take a careful look at the nature of complaining. Complaints, in the context of this article, are negative statements about things that one can not change -- such as the weather, aging, and viewpoints of others -- or about things for which one has no intention, or feels inadequate, to take action to change -- such as hunger, hatred, and war. Someone who is actively working to bring about positive change through deliberate action is not a complainer, but is one who sees problems as calls to action, and as possibilities for growth and transformation.
Here, then, is my definition. Complaining is:
The disparaging observation about a person, event, or phenomenon, for which the complainer has no ability or intention to act in order to create positive change.
From my experience and observations, people complain for several reasons:
We often complain because we are uncomfortable feeling helpless and out of control in the face of problems for which we feel unable to do anything. Complaining can make us feel active and involved, because we are presenting a strong opinion, often in “righteous indignation.” When we place ourselves as the critical observer or victim, though, we exempt ourselves from doing anything to fix the situation. Many complaints are accompanied with a “world-weary” sigh. That’s just the way it is, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change it. The complainer will often label one who believes that positive change is possible as “naïve” in order to justify and excuse his inaction.
Complaining puts the focus on outside sources (other people, nature, politics, God...), to keep us from seeing our role in the complaint, and to avoid the hard work of changing our attitude and actions. When, for example, we complain that “everybody is greedy” or “the culture is corrupt” we are blaming others for our situation. Since neither are objectively true (there are many, many generous and honest people and organizations), these complaints say more about the complainer than the object of his complaint. If you complain that everyone is greedy, that’s an indication that you need to examine your own relationship to money and possessions.
There are those who enjoy looking for problems; finding the one thing that is “wrong” in a situation, and then taking great pride in the discovery of the defect. While this seems like a position of discernment and an insistence on quality, it is actually an effort to feel better about oneself by criticizing another -– especially someone who is producing. The complainer may say, "Whatever happened to quality?" (implying that he is one of the rare human being who cares about such things), but the complainer does not present the discovery of these defects in an attitude of helpfulness, but usually vocalizes them with relish and contempt.
I know about these reasons for complaining because at one time or another I’ve used them all. I’ve discovered, though, that complaining is not only ineffective but, like the man at the concert, damages relationships, drains my energy, and makes me and those around me unhappy. I have recently vowed to stop complaining, and when complaints arise, I now ask myself the following questions:
1. Do I want to, and can I, do anything about it? If so, then do it, if not, then gladly accept the reality of the situation.
2. What’s my role in this complaint? If there’s a recurring pattern, then the one common factor is me, and I must look inward first for the reason for the complaint.
3. Am I just nitpicking to make myself look good/smart/superior? When I see something that others miss, if it’s not important, let it go. If it is important, point it out gently, with an intention to be of service.
These are difficult practices, but as we encounter the damage caused by years of complaining, we start to catch ourselves before we indulge this destructive habit, and begin to see that we can actually transform our inclination to complain in to a means for personal and societal growth.