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The Case Against Complaining

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Some time ago, I met a pair of teachers who happened to be married. Each of them had been teaching for several decades, and both seemed thoroughly unhappy. Every time that either of them contributed to the conversation that we were sharing, they complained, making known another thing they found unsatisfactory or unacceptable. I’m not talking about the solutions-oriented, disciplined discussion of problems; I’m talking about relentless, incorrigible problem-pointing-out.

And while I didn’t ever get the chance to know them super well, my guess would be that these people were probably doing much poorer than they needed to be at the interior and exterior work of life. In other words, they weren’t the best teachers they could be, they weren’t the best spouses they could be, they weren’t the most fulfilled they could be. Even worse, they didn’t seem to be on a trajectory of changing that. I’m guessing a lot here, but it’s a guess based on what I saw in speaking with them and, importantly, on a couple of simple hypotheses.

Here is why I think we ought to take our own penchant for complaining seriously:

  • First, complaining — the non-solutions-oriented pointing-out of unsatisfactory situations —  has a deleterious effect on how we perform.
  • And second, when we become habitual complainers, the negative effects spread from our performance to our being, to who we actually are.

Why we* complain: The cases we make

*I do it, too.

Teachers are smart people, and therefore when we complain, we often rationalize it. I’ve heard (or used) reasons like this:

  • It’s therapeutic.
  • It’s important to vent.
  • It makes me feel better.
  • It builds community or camaraderie because we realize that we all feel this way, that we’re in this together.

The trouble, though, is that these cases for complaining are often unwarranted statements of faith. They don’t stand up well to simple, prodding questions, such as:

  • Do we have proof that there is therapeutic value in complaining? Does any school of psychology uphold this?
  • Do we have proof that venting is important? Is that proof anecdotal (“Well, So-and-so always seemed like she had it together and was all Positive Polly, all the way until she committed physical assault”) or empirical?
  • Shall we do all things that make us feel better? Cocaine can make you feel better, too. So can cigarettes. And Oreos. Is the “Do what makes you feel good” line of thinking solid? Is this the kind of rationale we hope our students use when deciding whether or not to apply themselves in school?
  • Are community and camaraderie irrefutably good, all the time? Hitler had a strong sense of community in his life. I’m sure that members of the Ku Klux Klan enjoy camaraderie.

I’m not saying our rationalizations are wrong — just that they are weak, built on faulty foundations.

The question, then, is whether there are stronger cases against complaining.

Why we ought not to: The cases against complaining

Here’s why I think a lot of us know we ought to not complain — about work, about our kids, about whatever.

First, and least importantly, there’s the waste of time. Since complaining isn’t solutions-oriented, a complaining session doesn’t make anything of value: there’s no product to help us do better work, no path forward through the thing that’s frustrating us. So, at best, complaining wastes the time it takes to complain. Even though I think this is the least important effect of complaining, it’s still pretty massive, considering that probably the Number One Thing that teachers around the USA can agree on is that we don’t have enough time to do our jobs.

Unfortunately, complaining wastes more than just the time it takes to complain, because complaining does make something inside of us, and I think what it makes can vary. Interestingly, I’ve found that complaining can make me feel both overly powerless — “Situation X is terrible. There’s just nothing I can do about it.” — and overly prideful — “Situation Y is terrible. I am outraged that this could happen to me. I am better than this situation.” Teachers already struggle with a sense that there are so many things we can’t control; do we really need to exacerbate that sense of powerlessness? And perhaps the central human weakness is pride, a sense of owed-ness. Ought we engage in activities that make humility even harder? What I’m saying is that there’s a warping of the heart that happens when we complain, and from the warped heart we can’t do our best work. So not only does complaining cost us the time it takes to complain, it also costs us the productivity and wisdom and focus we lose from the internal cost of having done it.

But it can get even worse, as we finally come back to that couple at the start of this article. I think it’s possible for us, when we habituate complaint and place in our innermost circles those who will complain along with us, to have complaining become a part of us, a component of our identities.

C. S. Lewis, in his The Great Divorce, pulls this thread even further. In the book, the narrator sees a woman who is walking by him, and the woman is complaining nonstop, so much so that her companion can’t get a word in. After the woman passes by, the narrator says, “That unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”

In other words, complaining is a foible, sure — but it’s not like those other nasty things that people do. It’s not morally damnable or anything like that.

The narrator’s guide responds: “[An old woman with a complaining habit] is what she once was. That may be what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.”

Narrator: “I should have thought there was no doubt of that!”

Guide: “Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

“But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?” In other words, how can there be a complaint without a complainer?

The guide responds, “…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can [turn away from it] and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the [complaining] mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the [complaint] itself going on forever like a machine.

Do you see it? Lewis is suggesting that when we make peace with complaining, when we justify it and see it as a good, that it’s possible for us to reach a point of no return, a point where we can no longer stop it because we can no longer differentiate ourselves from it, we can no longer see it. It just is us; we just are a complaint, something so much less than a person. Pretty metaphysical, but a useful illustration, I think.

Are you a grumbler, or just a grumble?

As I noted earlier, I grumble, and people far better than me do, too. Lewis’ story aligns with that — that there’s this part of even the best of us that at times justifies complaining, even relishes it. If this post only makes you more of a moralist, more certain in your own goodness, then it’s a failed piece of writing.

What I do hope you do at this point is question your justifications for complaining. Just question them. Weigh the cases for and against.

And then, rejoice in the autonomy you do have in this area of your professional life. There are so many things we can’t control, but every teacher in the world can choose whether or not to persist in complaining.

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4 Responses to The Case Against Complaining

  1. Deb Dumas January 24, 2017 at 9:35 am #

    I love that you quoted C. S. Lewis to make your case against grumbling and complaining. I wish you and your family all the best as you welcome your new little one.

    • davestuartjr January 24, 2017 at 10:59 am #

      Lewis is the best on this topic, in my opinion — as he is in so many! It is always good to meet a like-minded friend, Deb. Thank you so much 🙂

  2. Charles Griffin January 24, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

    Dave, you have enrolled a mighty ally in Lewis, and there is a real hazard in perennially negative people and the energy they drain from the rest of us with their braking verbiage. Nevertheless I take issue with your blog because while many have tried to dismiss recent demonstrations as “just whining” and you seem to suggest that there is no benefit to grumbling, I think there is a very serious need to point out when things are headed in the wrong direction or have already arrived in a bad place. You shared some advice in a recent blog about learning a 100+ names in the first week, and one of my thoughts was that I have an especially light year with 130, and my neighbor has a 150, and with the uncertain nature of education funding those numbers could climb back up all too easily. Is it empty complaining or grumbling when I have 5 sections of 40 English students’ papers to read and grade? I don’t now, but I have come close in the past, and I felt righteous pointing out the wrong of those work conditions. I like your positive attitude and your call for a life-teaching balance, but there are times we do need to stand up and say things are wrong.

  3. davestuartjr January 25, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi Charles,

    There’s a chasm in my mind between the kind of complaining that often takes place at the copy machine and the kind of problem-pointing-out that you are describing. An orientation toward solutions is, in my mind, a non-negotiable. I was certainly not writing with the recent marches and demonstrations in mind; to me, demostrating in that manner is an active effort to make right a wrong. It is not idle complaining.

    This might help. The character referenced in the Lewis quote is this person who goes on and on and on and on about all of the wrongs that have been done against her. Everything, it seems, that has ever happened to her has been an affront, has been unsuitable, has been less than she was owed. It’s that disposition that I think Lewis is arguing can eventually take away our personhood. And so, again, I see that is markedly different from advocating for just class sizes or marching in protest.

    So I do believe there is little benefit in grumbling — as you say I suggest — but where we differ is that I don’t define the examples you cite as grumbling. They are active efforts to reduce wrongs.

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