Chris was the company clown at a mail-order bike shop I worked at. Unlike the clownery he perpetrated on other employees of the company, the clownery he directed at me was evil-clownery, like the time he put bike grease under my desk. Even though my legs glided easily under the desk, his prank ruined my pants.
He also like to insult me, calling me a baby and other names related to the fact I was the youngest salesperson there. In truth, I think Chris was duking it out with me for the title of most socially irrelevant person in the company. He wanted to make sure I won.
Things came to a head one day when I logged into our computer system and Chris had changed my name to “Dave ‘whiner’ Friedlander.” I was furious. I knew it was Chris. Before I complained to my boss, I retaliated. I wrote, “Chris ‘Virgin’ King.” I had recently lost my virginity and though I didn’t want to announce it directly (it was questionable how cool it was to lose your virginity at age twenty), I had no compunction about an indirect announcement. Chris, clownish as he was, wasn’t so prepossessing, being both socially aggressive and physically swarthy. I thought “virgin” would would inflict the greatest damage.
I imagined the ensuing battle. I would have said, “I can stop whining by myself, but you can’t un-virgin yourself. I know this because I’m not a virgin!”
Chris, ever the rebuttarian, would have been speechless. He would forever recede into his cubicle. Screw you for calling me a whiner.
Instead of this verbal battle royal, I opted to whine to my boss about Chris’ actions.
Chris wasn’t too pleased to be pronounced a virgin. He was probably an eighth grade finger-bang away from monkish-levels of female attention, so my jab was well placed.
But I wasn’t particularly pleased to be pronounced a whiner either. Our similar aggravation, not to mention my complaining about the situation, elucidated an uncomfortable thought: maybe I was a whiner.
Memories of complaints began to flood my mind: car trips that were too long, summers that were too hot, winters that were too cold, girls that were too indifferent, guys that didn’t like me, a body that was too awkward, parents that messed me up for good, an asshole brother, and so on. The incontrovertibility of Chris’ insult hit me hard.
From there forward, food was going to be fine, the weather fine, pay enough, girls wouldn’t owe me any more attention than I got, men didn’t need to respect me, my parents adequate, brother tolerable, Chris, still an asshole, wouldn’t be complained about. I vowed to never be branded a whiner again.
I was reading about nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. In addition to poetry, Leopardi was also a professional whiner. Here is a sample of his whining:
Now will you rest forever,
My tired heart. Dead is the last
That I thought eternal. Dead. Well I
In us the sweet illusions,
Nothing but ash, desire burned out.
Rest forever. You have
Trembled enough. Nothing is worth
Thy beats, nor does the earth
Thy sighs. Bitter and dull
Is life, there is nought else. The
world is clay.
This is one of his cheerier laments.
Apparently his life reflected his art. Leopardi was a miserable man with exceedingly poor health, dying at age thirty-eight with a heart filled with unrequited love (a whiner and a virgin).
Leopardi is a titan in the annals of complaint. But aren’t there many more people who, though not as explicitly doleful as him, are heroic whiners? Isn’t Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” just a diatribe about capitalism and most everything? What about Joy Division—a much loved band whose original frontman killed himself and whose name is derived from concentration camp brothels. (I still don’t know why would love tear anyone apart…again?). Isn’t “The Waste Land” just a lament about modern-life’s alienating effects? (I actually like the month of April).
To assert that most of the artistic and philosophic movements of the last thousand years have been little more than aestheticized bitch sessions can be threatening. We identify with these things. We know their pain and disappointment. Their suffering is ours. Moreover, the happy folks seem so lame. I’d still take a suicidal Elliot Smith over a life-affirming Amy Grant.
Of course, there are arguments defending complaints and other forms of expressed suffering. It is argued that without suffering, we would not have fodder or motivation for something better. Only through suffering are we are able to transform something horrible into something beautiful. Complaining and whining—any verbalization of our suffering—can also be catharsis.
Maybe. But then again maybe we need to tease apart a transformative and/or cathartic act from the suffering that seemed to inspire it. For example, I can transform pain of a breakup into liberation by writing a song to deal with. It could be asserted that my act of transformation is inseparable with my suffering. But what if I performed the act without suffering? If we hold suffering as a useful too, as a necessary agent for transforming our lives, we’re going to seek out more suffering. But transformation need not be at the behest of suffering. We can perform the transformative act when happy too (it’s just a different, more pleasant motivation).
We should also check our underlying intention with our expressions of suffering. Complaints are a statement that there’s a dissonance between present conditions and optimal ones. For example, I started wearing size thirteen shoes when I was twelve years old. I used to complain that my feet were too big. Implied was that my size thirteens deviated from some ideal, like a size eleven.
But what was I doing when I complained about this untenable pedal problem? Was I trying to affect the situation? If I was a size eleven, would I be free from my suffering, or would I have bitched about something else? If my feet shrank, I’d probably complain that my arms were too thin. Complainers like me always seem to find something to complain about.
In truths, the intention behind most complaints is to justify suffering, not relieve it. We want our suffering to be validated and a complaint is the first step. It lets the world know why things sucks. For example, I used my big feet to explain why I was so unpopular and bad at sports. Of course the two things had nothing to do with one another, but I had to somehow reconcile why I was selected last for every team and why girls never gave me attention. It was obviously my feet.
Often, people will buy into our complaints. It is easy to find agreement that the world sucks. When I was in high school, I was heartened to know Pink Floyd thought things were a messed up as I did. Did I or my Pink Floyd listening friends do anything about this suckiness beside dropping acid? No. We were more interested in substantiating our perceived lack of liberty.
This does not preclude the possibility that many Pink Floyd listeners were transformed by their music—that they stopped being bricks in the wall. Nor does it suggest that many expressions that seem whiney are agents of transformation. But we should ask ourselves when complaining or agreeing with a complaint, are we looking to get rid of suffering or explain it?
The first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that human existence is in the nature of suffering. This means we are born and die and rarely seem to get what we want in between. The second truth says there’s a reason why we suffer, and the biggest reason is attachment—attachment to material things, to emotions, to identity, etc. According to Buddha, all phenomena is impermanent—appearing and disappearing like clouds in the sky—and when we attach ourselves to a particular notion of reality, disappointment (suffering) is bound to follow. The reason most of us complain is because of the discrepancy between the thing we are attached to and what is so. We want to be young, but are old. We want to be rich, but are poor. Without attachment to being young, getting old isn’t a source of suffering. Without attachment to being rich, poverty is not big deal. No attachment, nothing is wrong, no complaints.
For a long time, I thought lack of attachment meant stoicism. Why complain if I don’t get what I want? Everything goes to shit eventually. But then I found myself attached to not expressing emotion. Then I heard a story about the Buddha that changed my mind. After his whole enlightenment thing, he was pretty jazzed to share his realization, evangelizing on a circuit through northern India. But as he shared his findings, people weren’t getting it the way he hoped. They were still killing and getting embroiled in all sorts of drama. The Buddha got bummed out.
When I read this, I thought it was weird. It sounded like the Buddha was whining. If he were totally unattached to the phenomenon that is called enlightenment, why would he care? My conclusion that Buddha was a whiner had to do more with my misinterpretation of what enlightenment means than the his emotional immaturity. The Buddha didn’t say that we wouldn’t have human emotion, he just said that we should not be attached to it as if it were real. One can experience disappointment, sadness, worry, fear and myriad other emotions without being attached to them as real. They just are what they are, neither good nor bad. Just because there’s a cloud in the sky, doesn’t mean the sky is cloudy. Complainers suffer because the sky is cloudy. Those who express emotion without attachment are displeased that there’s a cloud in the sky. The sky is still clear, but there’s temporarily a cloud in it.
I saw that I was attached to not complaining. My experience with Chris traumatized me into thinking I couldn’t express emotion. I didn’t realize I could feel or express emotion without attaching myself to its reality, to allow emotions to rise and fall with the attachment I ideally have to the weather—pleasant or not, it’s just the weather and bound to change.