This week I watched part of an episode of the The Daily Show in which former NBC new anchor Tom Brokaw was interviewed. I didn’t know Brokaw had been sick but he had multiple myeloma or cancer in the bone marrow in his back. Jon Stewart pointed out how amazed he was that Brokaw was in pain but never let anyone know about it. He never complained. This was admirable to Stewart. It isn’t to me.
I would want to hear about someone’s back pain caused by cancer. That is pain that needs to be voiced. I want to hear about pain caused by a headache. Jon Stewart joked that he tells people about having gas and I would want to hear about it! I want to hear about how everyone experiences the world around and inside of them even if it irritates, annoys or grosses me out.
Because that’s all that we are.
I think most people confuse whining with complaining. Here’s an explanation of the distinction from Psychology Today:
Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.
I’m actually pro complaining, venting and whining when done properly. I’m for describing how you’re experiencing the world around and inside of you whether there’s a goal of attaining a solution or not. To me it means you’re awake, alive and aware.
I complain and vent a lot because it makes me feel better. I’m aware of something and it sucks and I acknowledge it. But, I’m smart about it. I consider the audience and when it isn’t appropriate, I complain to myself.
The bad name given to complaining is just another thing I get/don’t get.
Here’s my theory: those who don’t complain, the stoic, stiff-upper-lip types are so unaware of how they feel or are so unskilled in acknowledging anything irrational that it feels wrong somehow. To these types, acknowledging pain is to complain or whine about pain. But it ain’t.
What is complaining to the Tom Brokaws of the world is being superaware of what is happening to me. Recently I said out loud for no one and everyone to hear: “Why is there suddenly so much horn honking?”. What I’m really saying is “Something is changing/wrong/out of sorts on the streets of the city I live in”. When I say “my knees hurt” to no one and everyone I’m saying “I’m in my body. I’m paying attention. There is a potential problem here. Take it easy, Mel.”
Something I think is directly related to the frowning upon complaining is this noxious idea of “chill”. For those of you who don’t know what “chill” is (it deserves quotation marks forever), here’s a definition from Alana Massey from her great article, “Against Chill”:
To the uninitiated, having Chill and being cool are synonyms. They describe a person with a laid-back attitude, an absence of neurosis, and reasonably interesting tastes and passions. But the person with Chill is crucially missing these last ingredients because they are too far removed from anything that looks like intensity to have passions. They have discernible tastes and beliefs but they are unlikely to materialize as passionate. Passion is polarizing; being enthusiastic or worked up is downright obsessive.
Massey lays out the history of the word “chill” and notes “these definitions are deceptively simple ways of asking people to have fewer strong emotions”
It seems like the attitudes, behaviors and stances our culture approves of are narrowing and extreme and contradictory. “We” admire the chillest amongst us, the ones who let things roll of their backs and never appear overly emotional or affected. But in the areas “we” have agreed emotion is mandatory, “we” endorse emotion that is overly sweet, overly sentimental and nauseating. When feeling is allowed, it’s cartoonish.
I like to complain and I have no “chill” and I like these tendencies in others. With awareness and an inability to be quiet about what I’m feeling comes a tolerance of the sometimes messy emotions and intensity of other people. It makes me feel closer to people. From Oliver Burkeman’s article “Keep Complaining! It’s Good For You!”:
To exchange dissatisfactions is to acknowledge another person’s existence, and to share rueful mutual sympathy at the sometimes tremendously irritating predicament of having been born.
“Stop complaining!” “Be Chill” — behind these ideas, I suspect, is the growing and gross positivity movement that is the new opiate of the masses.
When I (never) become Queen of the World, complainers will be free to complain without ever experiencing an eye roll or an unsolicited solution or explanation. The strong, silent types will be banished to an island with the “chill” people where they will be forced to wear shirts with itchy tags in them, everyone is forced to make only the most superficial small talk, no one cares about anything, and everyone dies of boredom.