Complaining is holy

Sarah Kendzior, writer, anthropologist, social critic, recently published a piece at Al Jazeera English entitled “In defence of complaining.” In it, she critiques the inviolable American orthodoxy of positive thinking:

When the bubbles popped, and the jobs disappeared, and the debt soared, and the desperation hit, Americans were told to stay positive. Stop complaining – things will not be like this forever. Stop complaining – this is the way things have always been. Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

What really struck me was her introduction. It was a snapshot of one clergyman who happily galloped toward the new order:

In 2006, the Reverend Will Bowen launched a movement called A Complaint Free World. The goal of the movement was to get people to stop expressing “pain, grief, or discontent”.

The best way to stop expressing pain, grief or discontent was to buy purple bracelets from Bowen’s website. The bracelets serve as a sartorial censor for those compelled to discuss their problems. Every time you complain, you must switch the bracelet to the other wrist. If you go 21 consecutive days without complaining or switching the bracelets, you are rewarded with a Certificate of Happiness.

“Our words indicate our thoughts,” the certificate says. “Our thoughts create our world.”

Kendzior isn’t the first to call B.S. Acid-tongued author Barbara Ehrenreich, of Nickel and Dimed fame, exposed Bowen’s bracelet bonanza in her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America:

Within a few months [since mid-2006], his church had given out 4.5 million purple bracelets to people in over eighty countries. He envisions a complaint-free world and boasts that his bracelets have been distributed within schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. There is no word yet on how successful they have been in the latter two settings.

If Bowen’s method is extreme, his general idea is not. From what I’ve seen, avoiding “bitterness” and staying “tempered in one’s speech” is a powerful American Christian motif. It’s more Protestant than Catholic, more megachurch than mainline, and more suburban than urban or rural, but still bizarrely unavoidable.

To all this, I say: no. Complaint is sacred, holy, Christian. Complaint is the moral core of our tradition.

The enslaved Israelites in Egypt “groaned and cried out” to God. Because of this, God “was mindful of his covenant” and “saw the Israelites and knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). The prophets were full-blooded complainers, whom kings and subjects alike mocked for their “negativity.” In Jeremiah, “terror on every side!” (20:10) was a dismissive nickname, like “Mr. Doomsday” or “Chicken Little.” But ruthless truth-tellers like Jeremiah and Amos survive in our canon, not their mealymouthed counterparts from the royal court.

Jesus was a razor-tongued critic, comparing hypocritical leaders to whitewashed tombs full of rot. The psalmists did not “stay positive”: they wondered why God had abandoned them, why God made them a reproach in the eyes of their friends. Job, the inexplicably-afflicted just one, lamented until God had to answer, even if God’s answer was enigmatic and lofty.

Complaint is truth, calling suffering and oppression by name. As Kendzior points out, complaint is not the opposite of action: it is the indispensable beginning of action, because you cannot change what has no name, and people ashamed of their burdens don’t name them. Complaint is a way for otherwise unnoticed persons, who have never claimed their dignity, to do so for the first time. Complaint exposes the lies that cast down the lowly, while establishing the powerful in their thrones. Complaint acknowledges that even in this life, people deserve to be somehow concretely united with Jesus’ Resurrection. Complaint courageously affirms a reality we try hard to evade, namely that God is not a wizard, prayer is not magic, and faith does not mean hitting the easy button. To remix a saying I’ve seen variously ascribed to Augustine and Desmond Tutu: without God, we can’t. But without us, without our confronting wrong as wrong, God won’t.

So complain. Do not stop naming injustice just because everyone–and at times it seems like everyone–decides you are too negative, too shrill, too depressed, too touchy, too jealous, too sensitive, too weird, too naive, too impatient, et cetera. If you annoy people today, annoy more people tomorrow. You have an unimpeachable heritage: Israelites, psalmists, Amos and Jeremiah, Job, Jesus Christ.

We don’t need your positive thinking. It is escapist, void, useless. We need your truth. We do not sing about a God who treasures the silence of the poor, a God who affirms the positive thinking of the poor. We sing: The Lord hears the cry of the poor; blessed be the Lord. Get up. Make noise. In this place. Today.

3 thoughts on “Complaining is holy

  1. This is a very thought-provoking post. Last year, I attempted to give up complaining for lent. As part of it, I listened to Will Bowen’s “A Complaint-Free World.” A lot of it resonated with me. However, I think you’re right, that when it comes to complaining, some distinctions need to be made (God knows I’ve complained enough on this blog. ;)).

    The kind of complaining that I was trying to overcome, and that still really bothers me, was the type of fruitless negativity that just put myself and others in a bad mood. I didn’t like it when people who had roofs over their heads and three square meals a day complained because they couldn’t afford the newest car. Basically, when people who are the “haves” complain about the things they don’t have despite the fact that they still have more than 90% of the world. I do think this kind of complaining is toxic, and something we need to be aware of and move away from. A “count your blessings” approach, which research has backed up to be beneficial to mental health — writing down 5 things per day that you’re grateful for has been as effective as anti-depressants in some studies.

    However, you’re absolutely right that “stop complaining” and “don’t be negative” can be used to shut down a response to real injustices. And it can also be used as a tool of oppression to keep the “have nots” or the “have less” quiet, so that the “haves” can all feel a little more comfortable in their own positions.

    Thank you for challenging me to take a second look at complaining; I must continuously strive for discernment in this area.

    • You’re very welcome. :) I totally didn’t have in mind complaining, or not-complaining, with regard to the usual “first world problems.” I am definitely looking at the more sinister side of it. As in: “Unemployment and economic injustice is raging, actually getting bigger despite the way we juggle the numbers. Yet we are ordered to ‘be positive’ and ‘don’t be bitter’ instead of thinking about society both structurally and honestly. And, worst of all, influential Christians are shamefully ignoring the core of their own scripture in order to feed us that line.”

      I remember what a revelation it was, maybe five years ago, when I finally discovered writers who would talk about the “tyranny” of positive thinking in a strong voice. They were finally expressing what I knew deep down but didn’t know how to say, and what nobody else taught me to say: that I was very definitely being asked to uphold big illusions about the way my society worked. (In particular, journalist Chris Hedges became a huge inspiration for what I write the way I write it.) I feel the need to keep lifting up my realization for others, as a way of giving them permission to talk. We are so silent about so many of our hurts in this society. It doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing right or prudent or grateful about our silence. And the baseline of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not support such silence.

  2. Pingback: “Who is suffering?” | Young Adult Catholics

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