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The Value of Complaining

Something bugging you? Feel free to thumb your nose at it.

Rachel Hale/Baby Love
Source: Rachel Hale/Baby Love

You think this is an odd title? I don’t. I believe there’s plenty of value in complaining. Maybe even some virtue.

My pedigree is strong: I’m a complainer. A kvetch, in the words of my grandmother. Nobody in my family ever said, “Say nothing if you have nothing nice to say.” Like most of my forebears, I complain freely and proudly. I try to be discerning in what I complain about, of course. I wouldn’t just walk into your home and complain about the wallpaper. But I might if I’ve just spent $150 a night for a room at the Holiday Inn.

Not everybody agrees about complaining (or about wallpaper). Some disagree with my view quite strongly. One friend said, “If I had to write an essay called 'The Value of Complaining,' I’d just leave the whole page blank. That would summarize how I feel about complaining. All you do is rile yourself up and make everybody around you miserable.”

Before I turn this article over to commentary from non-complainers (who often complain about us complainers, by the way), let me explain why I see value in complaining.

Two reasons, actually. First, it feels good. It gives me some sense of power or (dare I hope?) community in situations where I already feel powerless and alone. I hate that sense of wearing a muzzle when I want to express a judgment about the people or conditions around me.

Second, if I can’t do anything about these idiots, at least I’ll be vocal about them and maybe I’ll get some social support from those around me. Maybe somebody will join me. At least nobody will confuse me with one of them or one who tolerates them.

Just look at the benefits accumulating right there:
(1) The joy of speaking out against something you judge to be wrong
(2) the joy of possibly finding a community which shares your judgment
(3) the possibility that like-minded people will find each other and act in concert to make changes.

What a thought that is! Social media seems to agree. Have you seen websites like Complainers acting together can make things happen.

Before this becomes too grand in scope, let me be honest. I’m not talking about social protesting against massive wrong-doing. This isn’t about protesting against that idiot dentist in New Jersey who shot a tame lion in Africa so he could fly home with his trophy and brag to his wife and kids. I grew up in the ‘60s and I did my share of grand style protesting, whether it was the Vietnam war or civil rights. I am talking about something on a much smaller scale here, and I readily admit it.

Here’s an example. I use the highway system a lot where I live in southern Ontario. The major highways around here have become parking lots. It used to take me less than an hour to zip into Toronto. Now it can easily take up to two. Much of that is truck traffic. I don’t want to digress into why the number of semis has just about doubled in the past decade or so, and I know truckers have to make a living too. But 18-wheelers are big, and often they move slowly. Yet they presently use any of the three lanes (am I the only one who remembers that the right lane is for slow moving traffic, and that the middle and, especially, left lanes are passing lanes ?) That rule seems to have been forgotten, at least by truckers in this area. The result: I often find myself boxed in by semis to my left, right, in front, and behind me. Worse yet, I often can’t see around them. I can’t even read the upcoming exit signs.

It’s frustrating, so I complain. I kvetch. It’s very convenient in those moments that “truck” rhymes with other ‘uck’ words.

I feel better after I do that. My partner doesn’t. Something she doesn’t get is that for me complaining is an alternative to road rage, not a stepping stone toward it. That doesn’t seem to matter. Complaining upsets her. And because I get thwarted in my good-natured kvetching, it creates conflict between us, which isn’t so good either.

I don’t expect her to co-author legislation with me banning use of the left lane by 18-wheelers and cement trucks, but I would like at least a simple “Yeah, that’s really frustrating” (it is) or “Wow, that’s kind of dangerous” (it is). That minimal support is all I’m looking for. You don’t have to share my views. Just give me some garden variety reflective listening. (“You seem really frustrated by that.”) That’s all most people need.

One more example, and I call this the Bill Maher effect. I suppose you could also call it the Stephen Colbert effect. You make fun of people and beliefs you judge to be idiotic. In Maher’s case the targets are simple and repeated: Fundamentalist religion and conservative Republicans and their social agendas. I find Maher to be very funny. Conservative Republicans and religious fundamentalists aren’t going away any time soon. If anything, they seem to be gaining in strength. Poking fun at them (complaining about them) feels good to me and it might even rally some political or social opposition. The Earth isn’t 5000 years old and when I hear about parents teaching this nonsense to their children in 2016 I want to scream. I do the next best thing: I kvetch. I complain here in this column, Caveman Logic; I complain when I give public talks. A sense of community is grand. Laughing together feels terrific: Just ask Maher and Colbert. Maybe, just maybe, one of those pious, scientifically illiterate parents will get the message before it’s too late and work to un-indoctrinate his kids. But that’s not the overriding point of this column.

The point is: We complain to stay in balance. Obviously, we must pick our battles, but we’ve got to speak out sometimes (not scream out. There are reasonable limits). What if it’s a case of complain or explode? As choices go, isn’t that a no-brainer? There’s a physical and psychological limit to how much we can bottle up. I’d never counsel anyone to swallow all that frustration. Would you? If the alternative is a little harmless kvetching, why get in the way of it? If our partners reject us for doing it, that’s unfortunate. Even if we can find no cohort to share our views (not all of us have gigs on HBO or the Comedy Channel), we may still feel some relief from voicing it. The alternative may be measurably unhealthy or dangerous. Never complaining also seems like intolerable blandness to me. (“Hello in there? Do you have any opinions? Any boundaries? Have you forgotten how to express yourself?”) Bottom line: Self-expression, and that includes occasional complaining, can be a matter of both self-respect and sanity.