Magazine article U.S. Catholic

LORD Hear Our Complaints

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

LORD Hear Our Complaints

Article excerpt

It's easy to fall into spiritual whining as a form of prayer, but it shouldn't become a substitute for action or acceptance.

Wisdom sometimes springs from the most unlikely source. The following, for example. An book of cowboy wisdom quotes an 1880s cowboy: "Know the rules in a cow camp when they have no regular cook. When anybody complains about the chuck, they have to do the cooking. One cowboy broke a biscuit open and says, `They are burnt on the bottom and top and raw and salty as hell, but shore fine, just the way I like 'em.'"

How I love that quote. Is there anyone out there who can't relate to his situation or admire his response? Maybe it's the time you sit writhing at a meeting going nowhere, one in which trivia and democracy abound. You start to complain but suddenly realize that if you continue, you're going to be handed the responsibility for the next meeting, so you end lamely with your own version of, "It's just the way I like 'em."

Criticism decreases in direct proportion to responsibility. Studies show that in families that turn a task over to the complainer, griping diminishes dramatically. I can vouch for this. When one of our sons wrote, "Dust me" on a tabletop, he became our designated duster on the spot. Routine complaints about food and chores in our household suddenly diminished. They didn't disappear, of course, but there was a marked change in attitude. The kids made their gripes clear but quickly added a proviso, "I'm not complaining, but..."

A friend of mine worked in an office where complaining was the main staple of conversation. One particularly negative coworker harped constantly with a variety of complaints, but she specialized in the "deplorable" state of the employee lounge, which, to her, was too noisy, too cluttered, and too untidy because fellow employees failed to clean up after themselves.

A new office manager listened to her for one week and then named her Manager of the Employee Lounge in addition to her main duties. He explained to her that because she clearly recognized the problems, she probably had some ideas for improving employee lounge behavior. She was dumbstruck. Lounge behavior didn't change much under her stewardship, but it changed her, and the office became a happier place without her carping.

Someone has labeled ours a culture of complaint. Talk shows thrive on this. They don't have guests who are content, peaceful, or accepting of the idea that hardship is a natural part of life or that they are responsible for alleviating hardships, their own or others'.

We know that complaining is contagious. And it's either nurtured or discouraged in families and workplaces. Teachers recognize students who come from complaining families. Their first reaction to a new idea or skill is negative: "This is dumb," "Why do we have to learn this?" and, more commonly, "I can't do it," while children reared in other families welcome the new as a challenge.

Similarly, the culture of complaint has invaded religious institutions with breathtaking speed. Just as we have complaining families, we find complaining church families. These are the faith communities that react to anything new with negativity, invoking the same tired wails they used as students, "This is silly," "I won't be a part of it," and those seven last words of the church, "We never did it this way before."

They carp about their pastor until they get a new one, and suddenly the former pastor becomes retrospectively eloquent, pastoral, and wise. This selective nostalgia brings to mind a quip used to describe a certain type of disgruntled military family: "They always like their last post best."

Lest anyone think I'm calling for an end to criticism in the church, let me point out the difference between chronic complainers and genuine reformers. The complainers believe they have done their duty by registering their displeasure. Genuine reformers care enough about the situation to take some responsibility for alleviating the problem. …

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