On September 17, 1839, a twenty-two year old man — named Henry David Thoreau — wrote the following in his journal:
Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity. All her operations seem separately, for the time, the single object for which all things tarry. Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were alloted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many aeons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of the nails. If the setting sun seems to hurry him to improve the day while it lasts, the chants of the crickets fails not to reassure him, even-measured as of old, teaching him to take his own time henceforth forever. The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.
As the wise is not anxious that time wait for him, neither does he wait for it.
Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees; at other times we miss the trees — or the bark, the leaves, the chants of the crickets — for the forest. Sometimes we are in so much of a hurry to reach our destination that we fail to enjoy the steps we take on the pathway; at other times we are so engrossed in the individual steps that we forget where we are headed, or even why we are traveling in the first place. Sometimes we feel that time is passing too quickly and we become anxious because it seems to be leaving us behind; at other times we feel impatient because time appears not to be moving as fast as we wish it would.
“Time,” like most objects of knowledge, has both a subjective and an objective dimension. As humans, our perception of time is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective — but some combination of the two. Objectively speaking, there are only 24 hours in a day and only 60 minutes in an hour; for each one of us, there is only one life-time to live with a definite number of years, days, hours, and minutes. Clocks tells us that time passes at a certain rate, regardless of what we feel or wish or imagine.
The subjective aspect of time, on the other hand, is equally real. The attitudes we adopt do not affect the passage of time — objectively measured — but they do expand or shrink time as it manifests in the world of our subjective experience.
How long does it take to tie one’s shoe laces or cut one’s fingernails? We may approach these tasks as if there were an unlimited amount of time at our disposal — or, in Thoreau’s words, as if an eternity had been allotted for their completion. Alternatively, we may approach these tasks as if we were already out of time, as if we didn’t have even a single moment to spare.
Whether we take the first approach or the second, the actual tying of our shoe laces or the cutting of our fingernails is probably going to take the same amount of clock time. The subjectively experienced quality of that time, however, is likely to be very different in the two cases. When we approach a task in the spirit of hastiness, we tend to perform it reluctantly, anxiously, grudgingly, for our attention is not focused on the task, but, perhaps, on what we wish to gain through it. On the other hand, when we approach a task in the spirit of eternity — as if time did not matter — the task is effectively raised to the status of an end that has its own value,that is not a means to some other end. We tie our shoe laces for the sake of tying our shoe laces. At that moment, the purpose of our life is nothing less and nothing more than tying our shoe laces.
Thoreau is not suggesting that we become lazy or ignore our larger goals; instead, he is suggesting that we act without any particular concern for time — that we perform every task deliberately, just as nature does, guided only by the task’s inherent demands.
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.
Any kind of work that demands specialized skills–any trade, craft, or art–can only be acquired slowly, in small increments. It typically requires ten or more years of training and practice before a sufficient degree of mastery is achieved in any worthwhile field, although there are many exceptions to this norm. These years of learning as a student and working as a novice are usually hard, and sometimes tedious, but the hard work and patience finally pay off when the teacher or mentor declares the disciple fit to practice his/her skills. This recognition usually comes in the form of a diploma, a degree, or a license. The crossing of the threshold from apprenticeship to mastery is nowadays known as “graduation,” which is often formalized in a solemn ceremony marking this shift in one’s status . . . what anthropologists would call a “rite of passage.”
The process of acquiring mastery, even at a minimal level, takes so much time and effort because the apprentice must learn several kinds of things more or less simultaneously. Each trade, craft, or art involves its own specialized language (sometimes called “jargon”), its own tools (both material and conceptual), and its own procedures and techniques. To gain entrance in a field as a professional requires mastery in all of these domains.
As students or novices become more and more adept at what they are trying to master, a unique knowing develops inside them, which, in certain cases, may alter their patterns of experiencing, interpreting, and reasoning about the world in profound ways. This knowing is not taught in any school, nor are there any textbooks for it; instead, it simply grows within a person due to a unique combination of passion, temperament, and experience. This knowing is a matter of inarticulate and often ineffable feeling, or intuition, that is not found in any of the formalities of one’s chosen trade, craft, or art. And yet, one cannot develop this kind of knowing without actually mastering the formalities, i.e., the jargon, the tools, the procedures, the techniques . . . all the hard, tedious stuff.
Every experienced and passionate farmer, carpenter, goldsmith, nurse, shoemaker, teacher . . . possesses an intuitive knowing that is closely related to his or her chosen field of expertise but which is also, at the same time, much more than the sum of their formal training. There is a wide range of variation in this kind of knowing from one person to another, since it cannot be measured or regulated by schools, guilds, or professional associations, let alone taught in a classroom. It cannot be implanted from the outside, as it were, but can only be allowed to grow and flourish in the heart. Perhaps its only condition is love, i.e., love for what one does.
There is, then, a storehouse of wisdom hidden deep within anyone who has mastered a given trade, craft, or art and is also in love with what he or she does. If properly appreciated, this wisdom can be a source of invaluable lessons that cannot be acquired from books or ordinary life experiences.
Whether, and to what extent, this inner knowing or wisdom actually translates into one’s everyday ebehavior is, of course, an open question . . . to be answered by each individual based on his or her level of awareness.
Let’s take one example, which may be called “the wisdom of the cockpit.” What is it that pilots know that others don’t know in the same way? What are the lessons we might learn from the wisdom that is hidden deep within a pilot’s heart? What can flying a plane tell us about living a life?
Following is not an exhaustive list, but only a random sampling. You may add your own insights. It is difficult to imagine an experienced pilot, however, who is not familiar with the following gems of wisdom.
1. You must know where you are coming from and where you are headed.
2. There is no point arguing with the weather. It is what it is. Cursing the winds will reduce your efficiency, but will have no effect on the winds.
3. When sudden, unexpected changes happen, finding someone to blame is not going to help you. Determining “who let the dogs out” is less important in a moment of crisis than bringing the dogs back in.
4. At any given point during the journey, both past and future may be allowed to recede into the background.
5. There is nothing as important for your well-being, and that of others around you, as paying full attention to what is happening now.
6. What the instruments actually say is of infinitely more value than what you wish, hope, or demand that they should say.
7. Computers, as well as other machines, are designed to function in fixed and predicatable ways. You are not a machine.
8. There are dozens of constantly changing variables. Your job is to monitor their changes, not in retrospect but as they are taking place moment by moment.
9. Be here, now. Do not react mindlessly; respond mindfully. Pay attention to your instruments, but do not follow them blindly. Sometimes you may have to trust your heart more than your instruments.
10. Do not conceptually separate yourself from your situation. Instead, become one with the ever-changing flow of reality; then make adjustments as needed.
11. Be flexible like a blade of grass. Sometimes you are not able to reach the destination for which you had originally planned. Read the signs carefully; they are both inside and around you. If reality is directing you to change course, do not resist.
12. Don’t worry too much about how people judge your performance. Sometimes you have to perform a maneuver that may not look elegant to those on the ground, and yet it may be life saving.
13. Every piece of data is to be acknowledged, but no piece of data is meaningful without reference to the big picture. Know the big picture.