My Extra Hour: On Complaint

As an exercise today, I wrote for exactly the extra hour the departure of daylight savings time allowed me…

I believe in healthy fictions—those not-really-true things you tell yourself  because, if you can only believe, life might be better.  I choose to believe I’m not absent-minded.  I think I can elude all those male stereotypes some people say are rooted deep in my gender.  If I leave something on a counter in the faculty lounge, I won’t accept it will be gone the next day.  I think positively.

But I also believe in complaining.

When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “Complaining won’t help,” and, as often happens with parental edicts, I’ve heard myself say those words.  Yet, as also often happens, I wonder if I’m parroting her.  My mother was right my complaining didn’t help anyone around me.  In fact, my whining may have made everyone in my family miserable.

And when my children come home from school and complain about all the work they must do before bed and I say, “Complaining won’t help,” I mean it won’t help me.  I have a great deal to accomplish in those hours too.  I fear a helpless, hopeless cloud will descend on us all and we won’t escape.  I don’t want to hear about it.

When my mother told me not to complain, I didn’t.  If I was ill or sad or resentful or peevish or hurt, I struggled to say nothing.  In a family of five children, you gain stature by being the maintenance-free one, the least fussy one.  Though I never attained that stature, I envied anyone who could swallow tears.  Spock on Star Trek was my hero and, just behind him, my older brother.

My stomach quickly filled with tears.  Perhaps I’m more sensitive or take everything as personal to myself, but my complaints sat barely arrested at the base of my throat.  Sometimes I couldn’t stop them.  Often stopping them meant removing myself altogether and living with the loneliness.  Other times I stopped them only to have them reappear like the contents of a finally-caught shark who disgorges lighters, beer can insulators, and hats.  Still, I never questioned my mother.

My son questions me.  He asks, in effect,  “Why isn’t it okay to feel the way I do?” and “Can anyone convince you how to feel?”  If keeping complaints to myself had worked, I might answer easily, but I understand what it’s like to have no right to your own feelings.  I’m sympathetic.  Part of me wants to capitulate.  “Go ahead,” I’d like to say, “complain if it will help you be heard, if it will help you move on, if it will help you feel loved.”  I also want to leave the room, but with more courage, less fear I’d be infected by complaint, I’d stay to listen.

Complaint is unbecoming, and, as writer, I also want to curb the dissatisfaction moving me to speak. Composing a tidy essay sometimes means imposing order on unease and false, insincere writing.  My students complain what a downer literature is—they don’t want to hear it—but if a writer can’t be heard, where will the tears go?

My petty complaints, I’ll keep to myself.  My big ones, my the-universe-is-all-wrong ones, I can’t.  In exchange for the ears of those around me, I’ll listen… as long as we can negotiate a reasonable time limit.

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2 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Home Life, Laments, life, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

2 responses to “My Extra Hour: On Complaint

  1. maplesyrup21

    that’s interesting…

    Thanks for visiting. —D

  2. When I taught high school art classes sometimes the lengthy bouts of complaining kids engaged in would drive me batty with frustration. I’d say, “Just think what all you might have accomplished in all this time you have been complaining. What a waste of energy!”

    I have long ago stopped a habit of complaining. It’s much more useful to spend the energy trying to effect change in what causes complaint. As if that was always possible, but no. But the creative exercise of finding ways to change what doesn’t work keeps me happily engaged. G

    The habit of complaining isn’t something I’d adopt, but an occasional burst of frustration seems natural. Maybe allowing myself complaint could create a familiar and worn path–I know I have to guard against that–but my belief in healthy fictions doesn’t extend to suppressing my feelings indefinitely. And I try to be understanding when my students complain… and then, as you must have, I tell them, “Fine. I’ve heard you. It’s time to move on.” —D

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