№37 Complaints Department

Don’t take a number.

I like people who complain. Or more accurately, I don’t like people who never complain. There are those moms at my kids’ schools who are always so upbeat. I can’t relate. And then there’s my friend Ellen who is quick to tell me what a dick her husband was last night then go off about the new online homework system. How refreshing.

I understand the precept, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I just have trouble with it. Those people who never say an unkind word are always praised at their funerals. They’re saints. I don’t like people portrayed as saints. They lie.

Several years ago, my cousin Sheryl and I shared a room on vacation. Back then she wore a bracelet with the words, “A Complaint-Free World,” to remind herself to refrain from complaining. At night, with Sheryl in the next bed, I needed to talk. What I needed to say involved complaining. I felt completely silenced.

I love my cousin Sheryl. I just didn’t love that little kick she was on during our vacation.

Recently, I asked her what that was all about. Sheryl said she’s still a beginner at going complaint-free, which means she’s probably still wearing that oppressive bracelet. She said she doesn’t want to complain, or be critical, or gossip, because it makes her and the people around her unhappier.

Is that true?

She told me about the Complaint-Free World movement led by Will Bowen, so I went to the website. The homepage has a picture of arms in all skin colors reaching to the sky. All the arms are wearing the bracelet. The caption says, “Could you go 21 days without complaining?” Eleven million people have taken the complaint-free challenge.

I know this might sound like a complaint, but on first glance this website bothered me. It looks totally goofy. But I didn’t want to be so negative, so I watched a video on the homepage featuring Maya Angelou. I mean, Maya Angelou! She’s awesome. She said if we stop complaining, we’ll stop blaming others for our mistakes. We’ll invite back courtesy. We’ll laugh out war.

I see the value in all of that and it turns out I’ve tried not complaining. I re-read my journal from last year and discovered I vowed to stop complaining twice. Obviously, I fell off the wagon.

The first time was during a trip with Vicky in Denmark. All I could do was complain about America. We rented bikes in Copenhagen and two minutes along the most beautiful bike lane with its own bike traffic lights, I was yelling to Vicky about how much America sucks for biking and how in Miami, I take my life in my hands every time I try to use less fossil fuel. Later at the hotel, our shower had three giant dispensers for soap, shampoo, and conditioner. I went on a tirade about how Americans don’t give two shits about waste with all our little shampoo bottles and individually wrapped soaps. No wonder we’re one of the leading producers of greenhouse gasses. America is a giant fart!

My complaints were justified. You might not call them complaints at all, just simple observations. But soon my observations turned on Denmark. Try ordering something in a restaurant. The waiters avoid eye contact. They act annoyed when you ask for a glass of water.

And the weather. They say it doesn’t stop raining in Denmark and they are right. “What the fuck with this rain?” I said, maybe once too many times because that’s when Vicky cut me off.

She was sick of my observations, so I pledged that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I wouldn’t say anything at all.

The next day we took off up the coast and the clouds cleared. We biked along the ocean, then through the woods where we saw deer, and swans, and ponies. I was in such a good mood after 25 miles and a hot shower at our Bed & Breakfast, with the eco-friendly soap dispensers, that I was sure I would go the rest of the day complaint-free, no problem. There was nothing to complain about.

I grabbed a fluffy white towel. Except it wasn’t fluffy. Maybe the water’s harder in Denmark. Maybe the innkeeper used too much starch. As Vicky got into the shower, I said, “These towels are excellent for exfoliating.”

Why do I focus so much on the negative?

Once my step mother made chicken and pasta. She asked me how I liked it and I said, “The sauce was a little salty.” I also said the chicken was perfectly tender, but she didn’t hear that part.

Maybe the problem with complaining is people are conditioned to hear only the negative. Tell a person her chicken is perfectly tender and a little salty and all she’ll hear is the chicken is too salty.

Of course, I should have known better, but my main problem with the complaint-free movement is it discourages people from telling the truth.

If a complaint-free world is a world where people take responsibility for its problems and try to solve them, how can we recognize the problems if we’re forbidden from mentioning them?

I read an essay in Good Housekeeping by Liz Brown, who was sinking into despair. She had a lot to be miserable about: She lost her job, she couldn’t pay her student loans, her cat died, then her other cat died, then her father-in-law died too. To try to stay afloat, she wrote a gratitude list for 100 days, which sounds to me like wearing a complaint-free-world bracelet.

Turns out she had a lot to be grateful for: She had a loving husband and a cheap apartment. She had a commercial acting agent and although her dog had cancer, he wasn’t dead yet. But what happened was the more she wrote the lists, the worse she felt. Because now she also felt ashamed for feeling bad about anything.

Finally, she saw a therapist who told her flat out her life was bad. She said she was trying to look on the bright side, and he said, “Screw that.”

He told her to stop pretending she wasn’t in pain.

She wrote an ingratitude list to acknowledge her pain, so she could deal with it.

A few days into my trip with Sheryl, she cut me some slack. She said I could complain if I was well-intentioned and if my complaints served a greater good, like to work something out. For her it’s not complaining to describe what is and to consciously work toward change.

Sheryl, like Liz Brown’s therapist, seems to have a hybrid approach — complain and act. She wants to recognize what needs changing and try to make the changes, rather than just bitch about everything that’s wrong with the world.

I’d wear a bracelet for that.


This is №38 of my #weeklyessaychallenge I started when I turned 50. I’m going to write 50 essays in 50 weeks and I’m not going to complain about it.