Complaining: Striking a Balance for Sanity

Working Hard

There are about 7 billion humans alive on earth, we all have problems, we all have complaints, and no one complaint is more valid than another, but it’s still important to find perspective.

As a child, at the dinner table, scarfing down my food as fast as I could and trying to skip over the boring stuff on the plate in my attempt to hurry and get back outside to play with my friends, I’d find my mother stopping me:

Clean your plate! You know there are children starving in Africa you ungrateful little brat?

This made me so angry, thinking to myself:

That doesn’t even make any sense? What are we gonna do mom, package up my leftovers and send them over? It’ll be rotten by the time it gets there so what does it matter if I eat it or not? Stupid.

Of course, as most children do, I thought of things in literal terms and rhetoric and principle escaped me.

Now, to a third person observer who’s removed bias, they could see that in fact, neither is really right or wrong. Both mother and child are true to their belief based on their own perception and experience of reality. To them, their point is valid. That cannot be argued away.

Like most things, life simply isn’t that black and white and more to the point, it’s not a competition to see who has had it the worst and deserves the most pity or understanding. It doesn’t work that way. Every individual has a unique reality comprised of the things they like, don’t like, pet peeves, negative word associations and so on. And no matter how “hard” or “easy” a life you’ve had, does that in any way impact your right to complain.

I have a friend who’s annoyed by the phrase “first-world problems” because of their experience with how they see people using it. When they hear this phrase their association with it is that it’s a term used to shut people up, to undermine them, to say other people have it so much worse so you don’t have the right to complain. Whenever you try to take away other people’s freedom, their free speech, they’re not going to like it and that’s valid.

Because someone you don’t even know and will never meet in another country has been tortured, does that mean you have no right to complain about how annoyed you are that your vacuum is broken? No, of course not. These are entirely separate lives with entirely separate experiences and one person cannot experience the life of another.

Person 1. The worst thing that has ever happened to them is that they were tortured.

Person 2. The worst thing that has ever happened to them is that their vacuum broke.

Two separate lives, two separate realities, two separate extremes, two separate complaints. Both valid and likely to never converge. However, as a thought experiment, let’s say these two people do meet. Comparatively, to a third party, they might look at this situation and think:

My god, that’s horrible for Person 1. Can you believe Person 2 was complaining about their broken vacuum to Person 1? Shame on them.

One set of Person 1 and 2 might not become good friends and resent each other because Person 1 thinks Person 2 is weak and disrespectful and has no right to complain and Person 2 hates that they should be made to feel guilty anytime they have something to complain about to Person 1.

In another set of these two people where they are this time best friends we might find that they don’t resent each other and that it’s not about competition, that they in fact embrace and consul each other regardless of how trivial or severe the issue may seem that one needs to talk about.

Still, with anything, there are the “within reason” boundaries that leave the spectrum into unhealthy territory.

Complains too little. Let’s say there’s someone that’s experienced something very traumatic like our Person 1 to the point where they never complain about anything and keep all their feelings bottled up tightly, to the point of denying all human emotion, which has them missing out on the positive things in life too.

Complains too much. Let’s say there’s someone that constantly complains about trivial and superficial things like our Person 2, to the point where they’re intolerable to be around, alienating friends and family.

I’ve had a lot of negativity in my life and it takes a lot of work to stay strong and keep striving for the positive. I’m pretty hard on myself, but I try not to hold others to my own standards which after all, like everyone else, I’ve only made up in my own reality. We all have different moral and ethical codes, different pain thresholds, etc.

When I use phrases like “first-world problems”, I use it in a different way than why my friend hates the term. It’s more a self-deprecating term for how I strike my balance for sanity’s sake than a way to self-righteously condemn others.

I love the saying:

To walk a mile in another man’s shoes.

To me, this is one of my most important anchors to strike a balance with not letting the problems in my life become unmanageable. And I understand that it won’t be the same anchor for everyone, but for me it’s about empathy and perspective to keep sane. For me, it’s important to acknowledge that there are so many people that have it so much worse than I can ever even know. And it’s not about feeling good in terms of:

Thank goodness it’s them and not me!

What it does is help me to focus on what I have than just what I do not. Every time I take a drink of clean water that’s delivered to me right under my own roof, I’m grateful. Of course, that’s not an answer or solution to the complaints or problems I have:

Oh, I have clean water. I should really stop complaining about being too tired to go to my sister’s party, I mean… I have clean water! I’m being a jerk.

That’s just silly. It’s to keep the balance, lessen the importance of those uncontrollable “it’s the end of the world” irrational thoughts and emotions that crop up in us as human beings. I’m happy to be alive; I have a good and comfortable life with all my needs met and the older I get, the less patience I have for dwelling too much on those negative complaints past the actual amount of time and effort needed to process them, which becomes less all the time.

In part, a form of meditation for me, I’m always looking to improve myself in this regard. With practice, I find myself getting over the negative feelings of things I or others are complaining about much quicker to move forward.

Another point my friend brought up is that we so often say to ourselves:

I wish I was like I used to be when I was a kid/teenager/younger. I was so carefree! Things were so easy then.

I think we’ve all at some point thought about going back to when things were simple and innocent. But, perhaps we like to remember things in retrospect much better or worse than they really were. The mind has a funny way of doing that. I think I would agree with my friend’s point in that we weren’t really better people when we were younger, we don’t really ever change, just the circumstances around us do.

To put it in a metaphor, it’s like the first day of school, our first backpack. This first backpack, we really carry with us our whole lives. And with each major life event another brick is placed in the bag. Some people get a whole bunch of bricks all at once, some people have them paced out more evenly throughout their lives, but we all ultimately end up with the same amount of bricks in the end. It’s not about who we will become, it’s about who we are. You are either strong enough to carry those bricks or you’re not.

Those who commit suicide, become drug addicts and similar, simply could not carry the weight any longer and gave up. For the rest of us, though some may do it more bitterly than others, we do what we have to to carry those bricks to the very end no matter how many are put in our bag. When we complain, this is more or less just those moments in life that we needed a friend to help lift the weight.

We need complaints. We need to allow each other to complain. In moderation, this is healthy. While only you can know whether you complain too much or too little for your own well-being, we can all work towards finding that balance for ourselves and managing our positivity and negativity levels better.