I want to counter two common arguments against complaining. But first, a story:
When I was 10 years old, I took a gymnastics class one day a week after school, and my father picked me up on his way home from work. Since it was the 70s, he was in a carpool, and one day one of his carpool partners was driving when they picked me up from gymnastics. I felt very awkward about having someone besides my dad go out of his way to pick me up, and tried to get in the car as quickly as possible, so as to minimize the amount of trouble I was creating. Alas, in my haste, I managed to close the door on the tip of my thumb–just the very tip, quite painful, but not enough to draw blood or break bones. My dad’s friend (not a dad, not accustomed to waiting for kids to buckle seatbelts) was already pulling away, and I didn’t want to inconvenience him by asking him to stop. So I rode home–a 10- or 12-minute drive–with my thumb stuck in the door.
Now, I feel pretty confident that you will be chuckling now, and thinking, “what an idiot! why didn’t she just yell ‘ouch!'” And yet, when I mention things about the church or church culture that are the equivalent of having my thumb-tip stuck in the door, I’m regularly told that I shouldn’t “whine.” There are two basic arguments against whining: 1) if you don’t have a solution to offer, what good is it to point out the problem?; and 2) it could be worse. Both lines of reasoning are unsatisfying to me.
It would be nice, of course, if everyone who had a problem could also figure out and implement the solution to that problem. But in fact, things rarely turn out that way–sometimes we lack the wisdom and sometimes we lack the power to solve our own problems. (Sometimes, it’s true that we are just lazy and prefer whining to taking action, but I think that this is sufficiently often *not* the case that we ought not to assume it to be the general rule). Within the church, I’m very like my 10-year-old self–I look pretty competent, and I understand some things, but I don’t really understand everything. And, as a woman, I can expect not to be in the driver’s seat most of the time–I simply do not have the power to change many of the things that bother me, even if I have a solution I think would work. Moreover, in an organization that is run entirely from the top down, there simply aren’t many channels for me to propose solutions and have anyone listen. Whining is probably not the most constructive response to this situation, but I think it is, at least, an understandable one.
“It could be worse.” This is the ultimate platitude; it’s nearly always true, and it’s nearly always unhelpful and irrelevant. The fact that it is -30 in Minnesota today just doesn’t make -1 feel any warmer to me here in Massachusetts. (I take DKLs subsistence farmer standard to be a variant of this argument–“if things were worse, you wouldn’t be complaining about this. Since they’re not, you should not complain”). For whatever reason, human psychology is such that intellectual appreciation of the possibility of more pain does nothing whatever to alleviate or put present pain into perspective. Not only does the recognition of other people’s pain not help me, even the memory of my own past sufferings is insufficient to allay present woes. When I have a bad headache, no amount of trying to remember the pain of childbirth will help me calibrate the pain of the headache and suffer appropriately. People just aren’t built like that, and they will yell “ouch” when they shut their fingers in car doors. Unless, of course, we manage to put in place enough social sanctions that they will suffer their miseries alone and in silence until they break. I don’t think we should do that, in fact, I believe that we’re commanded not to: “And whether on member suffer, all members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” My children whine when they need attention or are somehow feeling unloved; perhaps we should welcome other people’s whining as a reminder to be more loving.