Today seems to be “Complaining” Sunday. The lectionary gives us a choice of two readings from the Old Testament. The first is the story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and Aaron in the desert after their deliverance from the land of Egypt (Ex 16:2-15). They’re hungry and tired, and beginning to think that bondage in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread;” they lament, “for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The second passage, which we just heard, is from the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). You’ll remember that Jonah was the reluctant prophet chosen by God to warn the people of Nineveh to turn from their evil ways. It comes as a surprise and a disappointment to Jonah when the people actually do repent in response to his preaching, and he becomes angry — angry enough to die! he claims. The Lord then raises up a bush to provide shade for Jonah and he is consoled. But when the bush withers, Jonah’s anger returns and he starts complaining again, suggesting to God how unfair it is that God has chosen to be merciful to the Ninevites. Apparently Jonah thought they deserved to be punished! The gospel lesson has its complainers as well. The laborers hired at the beginning and the middle of the day complain that the owner has been unjust in giving those hired at the end of the day the same wage as they themselves received, since they had worked much longer. Their complaints come to the master, who asks why they should resent his generosity.
Complaining seems to be the theme for today. It’s a common theme that runs through Scripture and through life, something we all understand.
It’s actually an important topic for those of us who live together in communities — which is all of us. Complaining can undermine the common life of a family, a church, a community or a nation. Complaining, or murmuring, as St Benedict calls it, can have a toxic effect on human communities.
I came across an interesting book a few years ago.1 Will Bowen is a pastor of a church in Kansas, and the book tells of a challenge he gave to himself and to his congregation. The challenge was to go without complaining for 21 consecutive days. My first reaction was, “Hmm. Good luck with that!” Complaining is so much a part of our lives; what would we do if we couldn’t occasionally “vent” to someone about the things that irritate us? And it’s healthy to vent, isn’t it? We’re told we shouldn’t stifle our negative feelings. But the idea also appealed to me and I could see its obvious benefits. Could Bowen actually create a “complaint-free” church community? It seemed hard to imagine.
Bowen challenged the members of his congregation to refrain from complaining, gossiping or criticizing for 21 consecutive days. Each person received a wristband which they were to move to the other wrist whenever they caught themselves complaining. The purpose of moving the band was to heighten awareness, and it worked. Most everyone, Bowen reports, found it more difficult than they had imagined. Some were surprised by how often they complained. Most people didn’t think of themselves as “negative” but began to see how often they spoke negatively about their life or their work or their boss or their health or the weather or the traffic or…. well, you get the idea.
When we complain, Bowen explains, we focus on what we don’t have, rather than what it is we want or need. Complaining, he maintains, breeds a climate of negativity which affects our level of happiness – because we actually create our world by our thoughts and words. We can and do shape our own reality.
‘Are we supposed to just put up with things when they aren’t right?’ people asked. ‘Do we just look the other way or pretend that everything is okay?’ No, says Bowen, we don’t remain silent when something is wrong. But neither do we complain. We focus our attention on the facts of the matter – the facts themselves are always neutral – and try to look beyond the problem to envision a solution or a way forward. When we complain or criticize, we aren’t looking for a solution; we’re just expressing our dissatisfaction. Complaining, gossiping and criticizing have a sharp edge to them. They have the effect of belittling or diminishing another person, rather than bringing about a mutually-agreeable solution.
Healthy communication, Bowen reminds us, necessitates talking directly and only to the person with whom we have a problem. Triangulating – that is, bringing someone else into the problem by complaining or criticizing – perpetuates the problem rather than solving it. So stating a fact or describing a situation is different from complaining – what distinguishes the two is the meaning behind the words, the type of energy that’s embedded in the remark, whether the speaker’s intent is positive or negative.
So, Bowen told his congregation, you are free to gossip as long as you abide by two rules: (1) what you say about the person who is not present must be complimentary, and (2) you would repeat, word for word, what you are saying if the person was present. What your mother taught you makes sense, he says: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything. And it’s no fair to sugarcoat a criticism – “Isn’t it amazing how consistent she is in singing off key?” or “He’s so secure in himself; it doesn’t seem to bother him at all that he’s so homely and unattractive.”
Why do people complain? Bowen says it’s because we derive some sort of psychological or social benefit from it. That’s worth thinking about.
- We might complain to get a reaction from someone – perhaps we’re looking for sympathy, or approval.
- We might complain about someone in order to make ourselves look better by comparison. Complaining is actually a way of bragging because by pointing out another’s faults, we imply that we don’t share those faults and therefore are better than he is.
- We might use complaining to give the impression that we are clever or sophisticated, to impress or influence someone.
- We might complain in order to get our way. Complaining and criticizing help us feel strong – we can claim a kind of righteous indignation and force others to see it our way.
- Complaining and criticizing can also be a way of manipulating others, of getting them “on our side.”
- Sometimes criticizing is a way of covering up our feelings of weakness or fear.
- Complaining can also help reinforce a “victim” mentality, which can become a very comfortable role over time.
There are lots of good reasons why we complain as much as we do. Next time you’re about to complain, ask yourself, What is this about, really? What am I hoping to accomplish by complaining, and is there a better way?
Bowen points out that the words we use when complaining will often be the same words we use when we’re not complaining but merely describing something. It’s the intention, the type of energy behind the words that determines whether or not we are complaining. He tells people to notice how often and in what context they say things like:
“Wouldn’t you know!”
“Just my luck!”
“This always happens to me!”
“That’s so typical!”
When something goes wrong and we say, “Of course!” or “Wouldn’t you know it?” we are sending out a message that we expect these bad things to happen to us. It should be no surprise, Bowen says, that bad things seem to keep coming, that the same pattern keeps playing itself out in our lives.
Try saying “Of course!” or “Just my luck!” when good things happen. Try saying “This always happens to me!” or “That’s so typical!” when you’re speaking of something good. What a difference it makes when we expect good things to come to us, and expect to find goodness in other people.
Here’s another of Bowen’s suggestions: try substituting something else in place of negative words, something that reframes the way you think about the situation. Here are some examples,
Turn a problem into an opportunity.
Instead of “I have to” try saying “I get to.”
See setbacks as challenges.
Think of the person you loathe as your teacher.
Instead of “I demand” try “I would appreciate.”
Drop the complaint and make a request instead.
Give it a try, he says. It may feel awkward as you begin, but watch how it changes your attitude about the person or situation. And as you change your attitude, the situation will change. You can create the life you desire, Bowen says.
Well, that’s probably enough. I don’t want to be accused of complaining about complaining, or murmuring about murmuring. Bowen’s challenge is not an easy one. I know because I’ve tried. I haven’t always been successful, but I’d still like to be a “complaint-free” person.
Suppose you gave up complaining. Suppose you were a “murmur-free” person. Suppose you made it your practice to express what you desire and work constructively toward achieving it rather than complaining about the things you don’t like? Could becoming “murmur-free” make a difference in your quality of life and in the quality of life of those around you? It seems worth a try.
(Oh, and don’t complain to anyone about this sermon, okay?)
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