“The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.”
– Lord Jeffrey, punching me in the face all the way from the 19th century
“Really, James? Is this another one of those anti-whiner articles that seem to fill up the Internet?” Well, not quite. In fact, I have to admit- I enjoy whining. It’s terrible, I know. In hindsight it’s always a shameful habit. And yet, engaging in a gripe session is like chowing down on buttery, non-low fat, fully salted popcorn, with peanut M&M’s and a tall, ice-cold Dr. Pepper. Comforting, sometimes fun, but ultimately empty of sustenance.
And why shouldn’t forming a complainers group be enjoyable? It has social benefits: in a hostile world rife with uncertainty and personal insecurities, we isolated human beings struggling to survive can connect with like-minded allies. It provides affirmation- vital assurance that no, we’re not crazy, and if the world is out to get us, that we’re not alone in it. Others can see the problems too!
What’s more, complaining to others absolves us of the responsibility for fixing the problems in the first place! This is huge for self-motivated survival. Problem solving is hard and can be a dangerous undertaking. Sharing a complaint with an ally is a way to play Hot Potato with the Mr. Fix-It role. For example, you see piles of trash on the side of the road. Sure, you could roll up your sleeves and start cleaning up, but you could also just find someone to talk to about it: “Am I the only one who sees all this trash all over the place? No? You see it too? Man, how terrible! Well, at least somebody knows about it now, so it can get cleaned up. I’ve got work to do. See ya later!”
The trash problem is a sort of cartoonish example. However, in real world scenarios, whining also can serve as a way for us to avoid the negative emotions that come from failing to solve a problem. In other words, we whine to alleviate the very real pain of living in a broken world we can’t fix. For example, many of my students have disadvantages I can scarcely imagine, and no amount of hard work from me can fix the troubles they deal with on a daily basis when they go home from school. It affects their academic abilities, their behavior, and their motivation to compete in our economy. In my isolated classroom, from time to time, what I perceive is that I fail, and fail, and fail to solve some of these problems. This perceived failure creates a residue of negativity inside me, and I often seek to spew it out by engaging in the complaint circle.
1. Individual fails to solve large-scale problem by self.
2. Individual feels inadequate.
3. Individual seeks social connections to shift away feelings of inadequacy.
I think to a certain extent this is a pretty common phenomenon for us as human beings.
But there’s a dangerous, dangerous side effect to this process.
One of the coolest things about human beings is our affinity for narratives. It’s what newspaper reporters are told as they head out to collect the facts: find the story. Given nearly any assortment of related information, we will work ourselves crosseyed struggling to find the narrative in it. A person’s random collected deeds and biographical information is her “life story.” Various evidence collected in the fossil record is the “story of life on earth.” Our favorite teachers are often the ones who communicate truths in the form of stories.
And so it should be no surprise that in many popular narratives, the story grows out of the chief pursuits of its characters. That which occupies their time, becomes what they are about. For example, in what is probably my favorite TV drama of all time, AMC’s Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White’s occupation is that of a high school chemistry teacher. In the pilot episode, he tells his class “Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.” And lo and behold, the series ends up being a study of the great (chemical?) change of Walter White from nerdy nobody to villainous kingpin.
On AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper is a creative director for a Manhattan advertising firm. His job is to come up with persuasive campaigns to sell things to people. Interestingly, the series really becomes the story of how Draper the man spends his time convincing various people he’s this, or he’s that, constantly in search of who he really is. He’s an ad man who, in his private life, is better at selling himself than knowing what exactly it is he’s selling.
And take The Walking Dead, the (again, AMC) drama about a rag-tag group of post-apocalyptic survivors. Led by Georgia deputy sheriff Rick Grimes, the scavengers struggle to exist surrounded by ravenous zombies and other, more violent raiders. Their occupation- that which occupies their time- is competing against nonliving bodies who have somehow evaded real death, and are mindlessly walking around. Ironically, our survivors actually become the walking dead themselves somewhat, as the lives they once knew are slowly stripped away in exchange for this new hellish existence.
That which occupies our time becomes a huge part of the narrative of who we are. Perhaps this is why I find myself constantly drawn to marveling at lessons I’m learning in life. I’m a teacher. The story of my life, if anything, is about learning. And the story of your life is largely determined by that which occupies your time. That’s what makes Gandhi’s famous exhortation so important: We shouldn’t just “be the change we wish to see in the world.” We should be everything we wish to see in our own worlds.
But…People/Kids These Days…
But people are ugly, nasty jerks, right? If they’re anything like some of my students, they won’t listen, they’re disrespectful- they just won’t do right! And it’s getting worse! Take the following quote, for example:
“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
Sums it up perfectly, huh? Sure, except that that’s just what was written on an Assyrian tablet dated 2800 B.C. Fact is, people have always been convinced that the world is getting worse, and that people are getting worse with it. Truth is, that seems to be so constant throughout history that it’s just part of life. And since each of us always feels that we’re more right than anybody else (that’s ok and logical- why would any of us hold onto an idea that we think is wrong?), every single person in human history would logically be surrounded by people who have it all wrong- at least more wrong than the observer. In fact, I would go as far as to hypothesize that the phenomenon of being convinced that you’re right and the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket, is just another part of the human experience. It has been like that for everybody, and as long as there are humans running around this place, it always will be like that.
I have never been able to get on board with the “culture war” mentality that many of my fellow Christians are obsessed with. In this worldview, there are Christians, who do the right thing, or at least know what it is (nobody’s perfect, right?), and then there’s the other side, the degenerates, who usually are seen as having evil agendas and by disagreeing with Christians, are waging war against God’s people. I believe in their right to feel this way- it just doesn’t work for me. In my mind, if I got caught up into that, it would be an extension of the “People these days! Ugh!” mentality, and would largely be a support group to lick my wounds when things don’t go my way, and to help me feel more comfortable with who I am, rather than expend that energy loving people I disagree with.
No, I don’t need that kind of action going on in my life- besides, I get all my “Kids these days! Ugh!” / “Hurray for me!” / “Do they not know a good lesson when they see one?” / “Well forget trying to teach THEM!” conversations out of my system whenever I talk to my teacher friends about what’s going on in my classroom. Waitaminute… Am I preaching to myself?
Yeah, I’m quite convicted today of the plank in my own eye. My kids aren’t as bad as I let myself believe sometimes, and I would go ahead and wager that almost every single teacher who’s ever had a classroom was convinced on one day or another that she had the worst kids in history, and that parents those days just weren’t doing their jobs. In that sort of light, I can whine about student behavior or inabilities until doomsday, but it’s not ever going to change anything. Even Christ, the greatest Changer in world history, was surrounded by angry mobs til the end, and they ended up killing Him! And somehow, He chose love and forgiveness over, “People these days! Ugh!”
Salt and Light
This is all too much like the doctor who complains about always having “all these sick people” around, or the lawyer who doesn’t like working with liars and crooks. I’m quick to point out that we as Christians have got to stop complaining that our world is full of sinners and misled people. So what if you think you’re the only one who “gets it”? That’s precisely what you signed up for when you converted. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be an absolute oddball for your faith. You’re to get over what you feel is wrong with the world and start being what you feel is right, even if no one else agrees with you. So how silly must I sound complaining about the way my students act, or what they’re “just not getting”! If I wasn’t prepared to spend seven hours a day trapped in a room with people who don’t understand how to act or think as well as I think I do, then what did I become a teacher for?
Complaining about what we feel is wrong with other people in the world but not with us, is rooted in insecurity. It’s essentially finding yourself in a hole and reaching to pull others in with you. This has been a tough pill for me to swallow. I’m way too quick to recognize the weaknesses in my students, even if only to try to eradicate them. When the weaknesses persist, I’ll feel like I’ve failed the student, even though I’m loathe to take credit for persistence of the strengths- we teachers are like that sometimes. We’re too quick to dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
So how different would my classroom be if I could just let myself off the hook for what I can’t control? If I just bypassed my complain button and loved every student for the person he/she is, pimples and warts and all? What kind of love might I embody? What kind of change might I actually enact? You know- the whole “Love one another” thing. Not “Point out what’s wrong with others.” Not “Find a gripe circle.” Not “Wage a culture war against those bad students at all costs.” Just… “Love one another.”
Ultimately, my life story will grow out of how I choose to I spend my time, as will yours. We won’t lead anyone to the Promised Land magically by announcing that we know the way, and then yelling at anyone who disagrees with our road map. If anyone is to make it to the Promised Land with us, it’ll have to be after making some side journeys by ourselves. Then one day, maybe we’ll be able to sit down with those who are looking for it, as friends, exchange a story or two, and quietly share some tasty milk and honey treats that someone else generously shared with us somewhere along the way…