There’s a famous story about Dolly Parton that I love. It goes that while she and her fellow actresses were shooting the film “Steel Magnolias” there was a scene taking place on an outside porch around Christmas and everyone was bundled up in wool sweaters and coats. The problem was, they were shooting in the middle of the summer in the sweltering heat and humidity of Louisiana. There was an especially long wait to begin filming and everyone started complaining about how hot they were in their costumes. Everyone except Dolly Parton, who was delightedly singing to herself while she swung blissfully on a nearby tree swing. At one point one of the actresses went over to her and asked something like, “Dolly, aren’t you dying of the heat? It’s soooo hot in these sweaters and we’ve been waiting for such a long time…” and Dolly looked at her and said sweetly, “All my life I’ve wanted to be a movie star and I ain’t about to bitch about what comes with it.”
That silenced the young ingenue immediately. I personally love this story because it is such a perfect example of recognizing the good in a situation, and realizing that in just about every situation you can choose to look at the good part of it or focus on the bad part of it. We always have that choice, just as Dolly did.
There’s another quote that I love from Laura Ingalls Wilder. She said, “We have a slight headache and we mention the fact. As an excuse to ourselves for inflicting it upon our friends we make it as bad as possible in the telling. ‘Oh I have such a dreadful headache,’ we say and we immediately feel much worse. Our pain has grown from the talking of it. If we have a headache we will forget it sooner if we talk of pleasant things.”
Haven’t you found this to be true? Take a second to think about it. When we’re complaining of something, doesn’t the whole thing we’re complaining about instantly get worse? And what good does complaining do anyway? It never actually improves the situation better or makes us feel any better about it.
I think the reason we like to complain is to somehow show the situation that it doesn’t have power over us, or to show ourselves that despite it all, we still have the upper hand. But wouldn’t choosing joy or at least contentment or the resolution to wait out the bad thing while keeping our spirits up be a better way of taking whatever control over it that we can?
When I was in college I became very friendly with a girl who complained all the time. Everything was miserable, everything had a bad side, and I found myself getting caught up in her negativity. It was kind of fun actually, at the time, to grumble about things and turn a cynical eye on everything around us. We became inseparable, and while I didn’t feel like I was turning into a negative, grouchy, somewhat sullen person, other people DID notice. And let me know.
After a few months, one friend took me aside and said, in the kindest way possible, “You know, you’re not the same Rachel that I really enjoyed meeting and spending time with when you first came here. I think it’s because you’re hanging out with ‘friend’s name’ so much.” I was very surprised to hear this, and this friend went on to say, “I really miss that person because she was so happy and optimistic and friendly, and I don’t want to see you disappear down this dark road instead.”
These comments really hurt my feelings, and even though I could totally see it at the time, having this friend was more important to me, so we got even closer. We became roommates and the fun of complaining all the time and busting on other people continued to be enjoyable, probably because it was a new way of acting and it did make me feel powerful in a way.
Then came another comment, this one from the friend’s brand new boyfriend, who would shortly thereafter go on to break her heart so severely that she did something so horrible it caused her to move out, us to sever ties completely, and we never spoke to each other again.
What he said to me was, “Jeez Rachel, you wouldn’t know what to come out of your mouth if it wasn’t complaining about something.”
Can I be honest? Even after all of these years, that comment still stings. It hurt me tremendously at the time, and he was clearly a jerk on so many levels, but truthfully it was one of those moments where somebody in my life said the exact right thing to me that I needed to hear at the exact right time. I felt like I had been punched squarely in the gut and it was precisely what I needed to help me get my life back on track. When the friend and I stopped speaking, after the darkness of the cruelty and the betrayal passed, it was like the sun came out on my life and I never looked back. I am not a complainer, I always try to see the silver lining, and when I do choose to vent about things that are frustrating or irritating or downright maddening, I make sure to get it out of my system quickly and move on.
To that point, I do believe that there is a time and a place for blowing off steam and not letting bad things get bottled up inside you. But it’s also important in those times to have a clear intention and to not let the complaining take over the overall joy and peace in the world you are cultivating.
The late Randy Pausch put it best in his Last Lecture when he said, “You have to decide if you’re going to be a Tigger or an Eeyore.” Well, I have been the Eeyore and I can tell you, being a Tigger is a better way to live.
Despite what some people may think, you don’t get any mythical points in life for suffering the most or for letting everyone else know, in great detail, what’s wrong with you or what is currently troubling you at the moment. What you DO get out of life is the opportunity to make it as happy and joyful and productive and fulfilling as you can. So choose to NOT complain. The more we complain, the more unhappy we get.