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.
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!)
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.”
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.”
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!