Can We Talk About Complaining?
When I was young, I heard often, from my parents probably and maybe from teachers or babysitters, “Complain, complain, complain—that’s all I hear.” Which was not, in fact, all they heard all the time. But at a given time, in a given setting, yes. Whine and complain.
Our kids have done their fair share of complaining, a lion’s share of that pertaining to us as parents. They have walked slump-shouldered around the house about plenty of issues. Not wanting to clean the bathroom, a school assignment, being in the car too long, going to bed, getting up in the morning, wanting a dog, not having a dog, having to play with the dog, just to name a few of the less intense ones. We aren’t unfamiliar with their complaints, from our own experience and from watching them wrestle with their frustrations.
There’s a lot of that swirling around us, the U.S. us, in these days, that wrestling out of frustrations. The atmosphere is fractious. Lots of little irritations nagging, and we talk about it. The coffee cup on the counter and not in the sink, that driver who needed to pass me with a whip and accelerate just to be two cars ahead of me at the stoplight, a customer in front of me in the checkout, a smart aleck at a sporting event, a wet towel on the floor. That highlights some of my recent prominent peeves.
I learned today that the word complain comes from the Latin com-meaning with or together and plangere-meaning to lament. This changes the game.
My kids had and have deeper complaints, that weren’t and aren’t just whining times, when their hearts were and are cracking from a wound or something they couldn’t and can't make sense of. Tears of lament have wet pillow cases, shirt sleeves, couch cushions, stuffed animals. With lament, they released what couldn’t be contained and shoved down any longer.
I’m wondering if the general complaining, the bemoaning of more minor irritations does not come from a need for a larger with-lament. Could it be that what is aching for tears and grief and perhaps even a season of counseling or times of calling a help hotline is the overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of anxiety, a depression that won’t relent, a loved one in chronic pain or addiction? Might the rancor and defensiveness we witness in public discourse—especially on social media platforms where we are not facing one another—originate from a growing fear that we are losing our crap, personally and collectively?
Dear ones, our discourse may be telling us something of critical importance. We can, even just a few of us and then it will spread further out, begin to tell a different narrative. We can pay attention to how often we are doing the business of complain, complain, complain. We can stop and take a breath, give ourselves a time-out, ask ourselves, “What is hurting here?”
I can tell you what’s hurting here, in my guts, provoking tears as if turning a knob on the stove and applying the heat one number at a time. Feeling the absence of my daughters in our home, because they see me and know me, and I see them and know them. Wanting to finish the job of raising my son to be a strong man and do this without holding my breath and waiting for it all to pass every dang day. Hearing news reports of the Rohingya people as they flee their villages in Myanmar, because ethnic cleansing continues to occur in our world. Syria. Puerto Rico. Florida. Houston. Vegas. Sutherland Springs, TX. Knowing there are homeless people who don’t get to hear the furnace cut on. Sitting in prayer for a friend who is recovering from a trauma. Knowing some questions don’t have answers, and they are terrible questions from terrible circumstances.
What is really hurting? Can we give space for the with-lament of our fellow humans? Can we give space for ourselves to ask what is hurting, where it hurts? Complain about the weather if we must, as it may be easier to nitpick for a time. At some point, we might research and read about the practice of lament. Let us gather with some people we love and we know love us back. Let us seek out professional help if need be.
When we notice a friend, or ourselves, spreading complaints like it’s the newest social media challenge, let us not roll our eyes or point a finger, or um, complain. Let us stop and listen, with our hearts. There’s a lot of with-lament, with-lament, with-lament out there. It permeates the air. But maybe there’s more to the story.