A Few Words about Complaining

Are you a complainer? Or do you follow of the rule: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? Do you find yourself avoiding complainers? Or do you think complaining can be a good thing sometimes? To get help answering these questions, I’m turning to an article in Notre Dame Magazine (Autumn 2022) by Andrew Santella entitled “Eight Complaints.” Let’s begin with what some famous people have said about complaining.

We learn to complain very early in life… (Photo by Kevin Fai – Pexels)

Aristotle claimed that complaining was “typical of the weaker sex.” (I suspect many women would complain about his words!) Kant wrote that complaining was “unworthy” of the dignified, virtuous person. (Does that mean saints never complain?) And Nietzsche wrote: “Complaining is never of any use.” (Really, Friedrich?)

Now a few words about the history of complaining. In the twelfth century, a Benedictine monk in France helped support his monastery by writing songs about things that annoyed him. What things? Here are a few: “I can’t stand a long wait… or a priest who lies… or the hoarse man who tries to sing… or too much water in too little wine… or little meat in a large dish.” (Any of these sound contemporary?)

What is the oldest surviving customer complaint? It was made in Mesopotamia around 1750 B.C. and still survives on a cuneiform tablet. It seems a dissatisfied customer named Nanni wrote to a supplier called Ea-nasir who not only delivered the wrong grade of copper to his customer, but delivered it late. Nanni wrote: “What do you take me for that you treat me so badly?… I have sent messengers to collect my money, but you have sent them back empty-handed.” Anyone who has registered a complaint about getting the wrong sandwich at the drive-thru or the wrong sneakers from amazon is following in Nanni’s shoes (or maybe I should say his sandals!)

Computers offer us ample opportunities for complaining… (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio – Pexels)

Why is complaining so universal? Writes Santella, “Because there has always been so much to complain about.” He dubs New York City (where he lives) as the “World Capital of Complaining.” He lists some of the most frequent complaints: high rent, slow subways, garbage strewn sidewalks, rogue car alarms, illegal parking, residential noise. He adds that democracies seem to “thrive on complaints.” Just think of how complaints are posted on social media or sent to the editors of newspapers or to government officials. (But I was thinking: I bet Putin doesn’t get many complaints!)

And now the question: Can complaining be a good thing? Santella says that psychologists tend to be ambiguous on the benefits of complaining: “It can be healthy, they say, except when it’s unhealthy.” The fact is, sometimes we just need to vent. And whining or complaining or moaning or groaning is one way we vent. Hopefully we have some trusted friends in our lives who are willing to listen to our complaints. So, it’s okay to whine—from time to time. But if our whining is chronic, than that’s not healthy. At the same time we must remember that some serious complaints throughout history have lead to serious changes for the better. Says Santella, “Female suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and South-Africa’s anti-apartheid campaign all grew from the seed of complaint about wrongs needing correction.”

Serious complaints can lead to serious changes for the better… (Photo by Markus Spiske – Pexels)

Have you noticed that there’s a lot of complaining in the Bible too? The classic example is the Chosen People. After their miraculous deliverance from the slavery of Egypt, what do they do? They grumble! They were just given their freedom, they saw water gush from a rock and bread come down from heaven. But they still complained that the manna “didn’t taste quite right.” Others in the Bible complain. Moses complains about the Israelites complaining! Job and Jeremiah both wish they had never been born. And we have an entire book in the Bible called “Lamentations.” (I wrote about that book on my blog June 11, 2021.)

At the end of his article, Santella notes: “Complaint does not equal unhappiness.” That French monk who wrote all those songs of complaint “seems to have been very jovial—and a pretty welcome party guest.”

For reflection:

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 meaning “I never complain,” and 10 meaning “I always complain”) how would you rate yourself?

What are your most frequent complaints?

What are the most frequent complaints you hear?

Can you give other examples of how a “seed of complaint” led to a better world?

Do you complain to God? Why or why not?

P.S. Thank you for your prayers for this past weekend’s retreat for the alumnae of Regina High School. The Holy Spirit was very active throughout our time together. I want to thank Sister Kay and all the wonderful women who participated! The retreat was a blessing for me personally!

Believe or not, I found quite a few songs that deal with complaining. Here’s a simple one by Jessica Rose called “Quit Complaining.” I especially liked the lines: “we don’t know how long this ride goes” and “I’ve got air in my lungs and someone to love.”

I would love to hear from you. Any comments—even very short ones—are welcome below!


  1. John E Hopkins on February 27, 2023 at 5:04 am

    Good morning, Sr. Melannie…

    We Benedictines are warned repeatedly in his Rule that “grumbling” and “murmuring” are very bad things indeed! In our modern day parlance, Benedict wanted only “team players” in his monastery! So it’s nice to hear that a Benedictine monk wrote a ditty about complaining! I’d like to think I don’t complain that much (about a 3), but if I’m watching any game played by the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics, and things aren’t going the way I want them to, then clearly the refs, the officials, or the umps are awful!!! But you’re right to say that complaining — righteous complaining, justifiable complaining (which Benedict wasn’t against) — can and has led to social change, and that’s a good thing! One last thing: When I first started teaching, I had a colleague who, when asked how things were going, would always reply with a smile: “I’m vertical and taking oxygen!”

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 27, 2023 at 6:20 am

      Good morning, John, Thank you again for a great response! And thanks for sharing your knowledge of our Father Benedict’s take on complaining. Your colleague’s comment at the end reminded me of this quote I’ve used on my blog before: “I’m not in a hospital, I’m not in Jail, I’m not in a grave. I’d say I’m having a good day!” READERS: John has just published a new book of poems! More details next week! … Melannie

  2. Joanne Bennardo on February 27, 2023 at 9:16 am

    Sister, Good morning, and thanks again for offering a thought-provoking topic.

    The line in the song that struck me was the one connecting comparing to complaining. Thomas Merton would caution us to “mind our own business.” His reasoning is that our complaints become unjustified when we begin to complain based upon what others have, and we become discontent. In the dance of life, we learn to sway in and out equally with those more endowed and those truly afflicted. I believe our responses to both lead us to holy ground.
    I would also like to thank you for a book recommendation you made last May, 2022 for Braiding Sweetgrass. This is a captivating book of beauty and insights.

  3. Melannie Svoboda SND on February 27, 2023 at 7:41 pm

    Good evening, Joanne, Yes, comparing ourselves to others can lead to discontent, as Merton wisely said. I liked your words: “In the dance of life, we learn to sway in and out equally with those more endowed and those truly afflicted.” And how our responses can lead us to “holy ground”… And I was happy to learn you’re reading “Braiding Sweetgrass”–probably my favorite book from last year. …Thanks again for writing! Melannie

  4. Kevin Meehan on February 28, 2023 at 4:37 pm

    Kind of funny that I read this after today’s gospel where Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. Stating God knows what we need before we ask.

    My complaining score is a three. The most common complaints are business expectations falling short. I share my disappointment and expectations with the manager/owner in the hopes for a better outcome and to help the business thrive.

    The common complaints deal with the state of the nation or the world. Our world has changed, people are more impatient and appear to care more about their situation and less about how it affects others. What a playground of opportunities for Christians, right?

    I share my frustrations with God. It is more to vent than to say what is already known. His ways are not my ways and my are not his. I have seen natural disasters build communities, open hearts, and break down human barriers.

    Thank you Sister Melannie. You continually have something good to mull over.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on March 1, 2023 at 10:57 am

      Dear Kevin, Thank you for your honest sharing. I especially appreciated your last paragraph–about our ways not being God’s ways. Sometimes we must admit: We just don’t understand what in the world God is thinking or doing. And that’s perfectly okay. But when we see bad things happening–like natural disasters–if we look more carefully, we can often see God bringing good from even such “bad” things. God is amazingly creative. Thanks for reminding us! Melannie

  5. Amy H on March 1, 2023 at 8:32 am

    Joanne, I love your insight regarding our response to those endowed and those truly afflicted, leading us to holy ground. An opportunity, vs going down the rabbit hole of comparison (which never ends well).
    My most frequent complaints are probably more inwardly focused or nitpicky ones in my daily life. (I will be paying closer attention now). Not sure of what # I am on the scale. Some days are definitely more rabbit hole and some on holy ground. Praying for more of the latter. As our priest said the other day when I asked how he was – “Grateful”. And I am most grateful for this weekly reflection Sr. M. His peace to you and all.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on March 1, 2023 at 11:00 am

      Good morning, Amy. I liked your expression, “Some days are more rabbit hole and some more holy ground.” It made me smile. And how important it is to reflect on all those things–including people–for which we are MOST grateful. I’m grateful that you read my blog, Amy, and that you took the time to comment. Thank you! Melannie

  6. Sonia Poplar on March 1, 2023 at 11:06 am

    John’s comment about a colleague’s response when asked how he was doing reminded me of a dear elderly Irish friend of mine in her 90’s who always responded she was this side of the grass.
    Makes me laugh out loud just thinking about her now.
    I’m guessing I am about a 2 or 3.
    Thank you for being so faithful to this blog. It means so much to all of us. I am still not getting it directly but my friend in Fla., who gets it forwarded from her friend, forwards it to me every week.
    Sunnie Poplar

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on March 4, 2023 at 2:36 pm

      Dear Sunnie, Nice to hear from you again! I smiled at your Irish friend’s comment. It puts things in perspective. And I thank you for working so creatively to continue to get my blog! We might have our problem solved soon… Thanks again for writing! Melannie

  7. Kathleen Satalin on March 3, 2023 at 8:33 am

    I think I would rate myself a 3 in complaining. Most of those complaints are about the weather and how gray it is here in Syracuse, NY. I sometimes share my complaints with God but usually they’re too trivial. Thank you, sister for your blog. I look forward to it every Monday.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on March 4, 2023 at 2:38 pm

      Dear Kathleen, And I look forward to reading the comments from my readers! As you see several of my readers rated themselves as a “3” when it comes to complaining… You’re in good company! Thanks for writing! Melannie

  8. Mike Szczepanik on March 11, 2023 at 8:20 am

    I’m late to the party here. Thanks, Sr. Melannie, for your reflection on complaining and the song by Jessica Rose — a very different song about complaining than one of my favorites, The Eagle’s “Get Over It” (is Don Henley complaining about complainers?) 😉 I empathized with the reader who complains about the gray days in Syracuse — we get a steady diet of those here in Columbus too. I’m generally successful at keeping my complaining below a 5. After all, with good health, retirement on the horizon, a loving wife and adult children, and an almost-2-year-old grandson, I truly have much to be thankful for and little to grumble about. Thanks for your weekly reflections — they brighten these gray winter days!

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