Maybe it’s the early onset of fall this year, or the stress of tackling a new semester in grad school, or the quiet misery of a recent 30-day detox diet, but whatever the cause, I’ve been complaining a lot lately. I mean a lot. I’ve always been good at whining, but the last few months have gotten out of control. I started to realize it one recent Monday when I walked into my office under a cloud of negativity and let loose on three unsuspecting colleagues in quick succession.
“How are you this morning?” asked one.
“Eh, it’s a Monday,” was my cheery response.
“Did you have a nice weekend?” asked another.
“Gosh, it was so busy I didn’t even get to enjoy it,” I grumbled in reply.
The third didn’t even get to ask a question; I unloaded before she had a chance. I groaned about the mounds of work on my desk, the disorganization that has been creeping over my office since sometime last year, the constant sense that, no matter what I do to get my work under control, I’m always miles behind, and on and on and on. Then I realized with embarrassment that I’d just spilled my guts and it wasn’t even 9 a.m. yet. I cut myself off and asked, with a cheeriness that was, I’m sure, appalling, “Oh, sorry. How was your weekend?”
That Monday morning shook me, but after a day or two, I let it go. Everyone is entitled to a Monday now and then, right?
But the complaining didn’t stop. It kept oozing out of me at odd moments and percolating in my thoughts. Then, about two weeks later, my fiancé told me that he’d been praying for me, “because you seem to be battling a lot of negativity lately.” I couldn’t deny it, and frankly, I didn’t want to. This provided the impetus I needed to sit down and look my complaining problem squarely in the face.
I’ve always combatted complaints either by telling myself to knock it off and smile or by escapism. The first method led to many years of stuffing down negative feelings and hoping they’d just go away if I ignored them for long enough (hint: it didn’t work). The second led to far too much television, chocolate and self-isolation (which definitely didn’t work). I’ve also occasionally tried the more positive and helpful approach of practicing gratitude. After all, thanking God for blessings when you feel the grumbles coming on is a nice way to flip ugly thinking on its head and get yourself back into a place of openness to God’s gifts. Yet even this good habit never got at the root cause of my tendency to complain.
Feeling at a loss, I finally took the whole thing to prayer, a little sheepish that it hadn’t occurred to me to bring it to the Lord before. Life has certainly taught me that prayer is the only place where needed change can begin, yet somehow, I manage to forget it with these big, pervasive struggles. And examining my habit of complaining with the Lord led me somewhere I didn’t expect. When I begged him to help me stop complaining and live joyfully, he responded very clearly with what sounded to my tearful, addled mind like a cruel joke: “I want you to find joy in your complaints.”
I was going to have to spend some time letting this answer sink in.
While I wanted help shedding a nasty habit, God was asking me to use the habit as a jumping-off point to grace. How on earth is that supposed to work? It took me a little while, but it slowly began to dawn on me that complaining, on its own, isn’t the problem. Complaining is a symptom of something else: It points to my fundamental attitude about reality. Complaining is a real response to real circumstances in my real, day-to-day life. And at base, complaining is my feeble attempt to push back on reality. In other words, when I complain, I reject the reality of my life as it is right now.
This may sound like no big deal or like an understandable response to circumstances that are less than ideal. Yet it’s actually a really, really big deal. Because reality is the place where God waits to meet me, day in and day out. Reality is life in the present moment, on its own terms — not mine. And because I can’t control reality, I take on a defensive posture toward it, and this manifests itself in many ways, but especially in my habit of complaining. When I push back on reality, all I end up doing is shutting God out of the place where he’s waiting for me to encounter him.
This is where the really beautiful part comes in. The desire to complain actually can be an invitation to let go of fear, embrace reality and meet God in the present moment, whatever it holds. Instead of cutting complaints off before they can manifest, I can meet them head on, accept the reality (whether it’s mounds of work at the office, losing my whole Saturday to homework or embarrassment at having spilled my guts yet again) and then hand the whole thing over to God, inviting him to turn it into joy.
I’m still learning how to do this, and I suspect I’ll be learning for a really, really long time. But I am putting this here for safekeeping because I know it’s the true answer — and because I need as many people as possible to hold me accountable. Next time you catch me whining, I give you permission to challenge me to find joy in the reality I’m resisting. And I challenge you to do the same.
Mary Beth Baker is a book acquisitions editor for Our Sunday Visitor and writes about the intersection of faith and daily life. Follow her on Twitter @m_b_baker