The Culture of Complaint

To get this straight from the beginning, I’m not going to complain about it.

We were all children. Sometimes we cried. Things hurt us and we couldn’t do anything about them. For those who are now mostly adults, it’s painful to hear children cry but we know what it’s about. Adults are no longer children, mostly. They try to comfort and do something about what hurts crying children.

There is also a culture of complaint among adults. This can be deserved. Something may be wrong and stand a chance of improvement if someone else hears about it. “I’m unaccountably sick.” “I’ve been assaulted/robbed.” “This thing doesn’t work.” “We need special help because we are in a markedly bad position.” “People should be stopped from destroying things that are valuable and important for everyone.” All of these are legitimate, and no doubt there are more examples that are just as good. Protest is OK. Whether individual dissent or organized resistance and rebellion, saying “no” is not only understandable but necessary.

Then there’s habitual complaining. Some people find something wrong in almost every situation. “There’s no one for me.” “There’s too many.” “I don’t have enough.” “I have too much.” “I don’t want what’s here.” Unhappy outcomes like these keep occurring regardless of the circumstances.

So many different people in such varying locations and scenarios are afflicted by the ceaselessly complaining condition that it’s necessary to surrender to sheer imagination to guess a universal cause. Is there a developmental stage involved whereby childhood crying became a fixed habit? Was there some other historical condition in the life of complainers that marked things so strongly that hope at ever finding satisfaction was simply canceled?

If it takes the form of a persistently thwarting and disabling psychological illness, then certainly patience is required and seeking remedies is appropriate, regardless of how annoyed one can become with adults who behave like whining children.

But there often seems to be a manipulative subtext that says, “If I’m never completely happy about anything, you should want to change my condition. When this happens I will gain power over you that I couldn’t possibly have held otherwise.” One suspects a peculiar ploy that is intended to first harvest sympathy and then exercise control over others regardless of an unending emotional drought. A social bid from those who wouldn’t have a play otherwise.

Another suspicious aspect is that habitual complaining might actually be more prominent when comparatively little in general is wrong. During hurricanes, tornadoes or other disruptive natural events, people exhibit enhanced cooperation in helping each other. Automobile accidents and other man-made calamities also bring out a sense of mutualism. Even wars transmute the natural comradeship of emergencies into a more long-term understanding that everyone is undergoing an indefinite period of frustration and suffering. It isn’t pleasant but it is endurable, and complaining won’t change anything.

In periods of greater normalcy, complaining has a certain energy if not passion about it that would be superfluous in more serious situations. Whining can become almost mysterious. How can anything be seriously wrong when everything seems to be going more or less right? There’s a certain rationale for listening attentively. We might be missing something. Good times could get even better.

But not really. This kind of non-stop complaining shouldn’t be trusted to ever reach an end. It is especially distasteful in advocates for change who don’t seem able to stop themselves from finding grievous faults even when the subject is outside their activism. Among environmental proponents who might reasonably be expected to hold up positive images and offer constructive examples, it is downright unforgivable.

In most of the world, adversity is as obvious as skinny children who beg for food with outstretched hands through the fences of sidewalk restaurants. They are among the majority of the planet’s humans whose problems are unequivocally real. “Will work for food” doesn’t mean anything else when it comes from them, and “I don’t like what’s happening” is reliable and urgent.

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