Browsing in the Moorhead Public Library, I recently came across A Complaint Free World, a small book by a minister from Kansas City, MO. The basic premise of Will Bowen’s book, and of his purple bracelet campaign aimed at eliminating the menace of “complaining” from the world, is as simple as it is powerful. The book begins with a quote from Maya Angelou.
If you don’t like something, change it.
If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
We all complain, some of us more than others. Yet, most of the time we remain unaware of exactly what is it that we are doing, why we are doing it, why does it cause more harm than good, and how we may become a complaint-free person. Will Bowen wants to change all that.
As a verb, the dictionary tells us, “complain” means “to express grief, pain, or discontent.” Now, it goes without saying that there is a tremendous amount of grief, pain, and discontent in the world . . . these have always been part of the human condition and, so far as the present structure of reality endures, they will continue to be part of the human condition. It follows that an important element of human self-expression has always been, and will continue to be, the sharing and articulation of our grief, pain, and discontent. If this is complaining, it seems rather cruel to declare it “bad.” If we are hurt, why shouldn’t we cry? If we are suffering, why shouldn’t we express our pain? As the great Urdu poet Ghalib put it . . .
Will Bowen, however, seems to be referring to a different, but closely related, phenomenon when he uses words like “complaining” and “complaint.” The problem is that the dictionary definition quoted above is too broad; the human expression of “grief, pain, and discontent” takes several different forms, and, strictly speaking, not all of them should be called “complaining.”
Let’s take a common example, that of physical pain resulting from a minor accident, such as when I bump my head against a window. The expression of pain that follows (and accompanies) the actual experience of pain can take the following forms: (1) I may utter a loud “ouch” and tears may come rolling out of my eyes; (2) I may swear at the person who left the window open (who might be none other than myself), at the window itself, at the laws of physics, or at nobody in particular; (3) I may visit the emergency room of the local hospital and tell the attending physician how this happened and how much my head is hurting; (4) I may let my spouse know about what happened, in order to share my feelings with a trusted person and, perhaps, to receive some tender loving care; (5) I may tell the building supervisor that the open window poses a hazard and that a cautionary sign needs to put up at the appropriate place; and (6) I may spend the rest of the day talking to my colleagues, friends, family members, neighbors, and anyone who cares to listen, explaining all about how I bumped by head against the window, how much it hurt, how it ruined my day, why am I so grumpy, why I hate the world in which heads get bumped against windows, how careless and incompetent the building supervisor is, how long I had to wait in the emergency room, how the stupid physician did not take my case seriously, why the pain in my skull proves the nonexistence of God, why I was right in not voting for Obama because he obviously hasn’t done anything to prevent such accidents . . .
The first expression of pain is largely involuntary, and may be quite useful both biologically and sociologically; it stops me from continuing to do what I was doing, allows me time to recover, draws the attention of others to my plight in case I need help, etc. The second expression of pain is entirely cultural, serves no useful purpose, and falls under the category of “complaining.” The third and fifth expressions of pain involve doing something positive–in one case to rectify the damage and in the other case to prevent the same from happening again. The fourth expression of pain may help in the emotional processing of the traumatic experience as well as strengthen human connections by allowing the emergence of empahty.
The sixth expression of pain, however, constitutes the bulk of what is at stake in Will Bowen’s book. He uses the word “complaining” to indicate precisely this kind of habitual and repetitive narration of one’s disapproval for the way things are and of one’s unhappiness about realities that are more or less immune to change. One usually does not indulge in this form of verbal behavior for the purpose of improving the world or of learning to go beyond some negative experience. On the contrary, such complaining is done for a range of psychological reasons, and serves certain pathological functions in a rather perverted manner. We boost our egos when we express our disapproval or contempt for certain individuals, things, or situations, for the very act of complaining allows us to feel superior to the objects of our complaining. So long as I am able to find faults or flaws in the way things are, which is another name for “reality,” I can imagine myself as standing at a higher, better place from where I can literally look down upon everything and everybody else.
Overall, complaining does more harm than good; it causes more damage to the complainer than that caused by the problematic situation itself–e.g., the bump in the head. Complaining neither benefits the complainer nor the individuals who become–willingly or unwillingly–the listeners and partners in crime.
Let me quote here some of the gems of wisdom from A Complaint Free World.
There are two things upon which most people will agree:
(1) There is too much complaining in the world.
(2) The state of the world is not the way we would like it.
In my opinion, there is a correlation between the two. We are focusing on what is wrong rather than focusing our vision on a healthy, happy, and harmonious world (p. 17).
Many people are an “ouch!” looking for a hurt. If you cry “ouch,” the hurt will show up. If you complain, you’ll receive more to complain about (p. 25).
Tired of meatloaf sandwiches? You’re making your own lunch each and every day. Change what you are saying. Stop complaining. Change your words, change your thoughts, and you will change your life. When Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find,” it was a statement of universal principle. What you seek, you will find. When you complain, you are using the incredible power fo your mind to seek things that you say you don’t want but nonetheless draw them to you. Then you complain about these new things and attract more of what you don’t want (p. 37).
Am I opposed to gossip? Absolutely not. As long as: (1) What you’re saying about the absent person is complimentary. (2) You would repeat, word for word, what you are saying if the absent person were present. If you can follow these two simple rules, gossip all you want (p. 59).
You wouldn’t notice the faults in the other person if they were not also in you. . . . Noticing it in another is the Universe’s way of inviting you to recognize it in yourself and heal it. If you want to point out something negative in another, do some digging, see if it’s also within you, and be grateful for this chance to now be aware of the shortcoming and heal it within yourself (pp. 60-61).
Complaining is often a means of drawing attention to one’s self. Everyone desires to be recognized, but people who complain a lot may be trying to attract attention because of low self-esteem. They may complain to those around them as a way of demonstrating their discriminating tastes and sophistication, especially when they feel unsure about themselves in these areas. The may also complain to legitimize and concretize self-appointed limitations to excuse themselves from stretching, growing, and improving their lives
I will summarize here what I believe Will Bowen is trying to say.
At one time or another, all of us feel strong sensations or emotions that may be called “grief, pain, or discontent.” As social beings, we wish to communicate these sensations or emotions to those around us . . . this is quite natural. Whether or not we are “complaining” in the negative sense of the term depends solely upon why we are sharing our grief, pain, or discontent; in other words, it depends solely upon our intentions.
How do we know our own intentions? Important clues to deciphering our intentions are found in how we express our grief, pain, and discontent; and to whom. If we are alert and aware, we can usually judge ourselves accurately. There are two positive ways of expressing grief, pain, or discontent, as follows: (1) expressing them with a person who may be able to guide us through the emotional turmoil and therefore help us move beyond the problematic situation; (2) discussing them with a person who may be able to partially or completely rectify the problematic situation, for us and/or for others. All other reasons for expressing grief, pain, or discontent are negative, i.e., they constitute “complaining.”
Why is complaining counter-productive? Complaining is the opposite of gratitude. No matter how many things have “gone wrong” in our lives, there is always a great deal more for what we can be thankful than there are justifiable reasons for complaining. The message is not that we should ignore our pain and suffering; on the contrary, the message is that we should learn to pay increasingly more attention to what is good and wonderful. With this shift in where we choose to focus our attention, it is inevitable that we would start coming across more and more things that will generate gratitude, and less and less of what will make us complain. It’s not that cultivating a “positive outlook” will, in and of itself, make the world perfect in every way; instead, the idea is that by eliminating the habit of complaining we would be allowing ourselves the freedom to recognize what is already perfect. The more thankful we become, the more reasons we are going to find for being even more thankful . . . until the urge to complain will collapse after having fully revealed its utter absurdity.
To get rid of the complaining habit, the first step is to know when we are complaining and be able to catch ourselves in the act. This requires an awareness of our own thought processes, moment by moment. Habits die hard, and so Will Bowen recommends an interesting device to help us kill the complaining habit: purple bracelet. Each time you catch yourself complaining, change the bracelet from one wrist to the other. You must go 21 consecutive days while the bracelet stays on the same wrist in order to qualify as a “complaint-free” person. This doesn’t mean you will never slip again; it does mean that you would have acquired enough self-awareness to know when you have slipped . . . which is the essential prerequisite for getting back up again.