Friday, November 02, 2012

In defense of: complaining about inconvenience

With the storm, there's been this immense outpouring of gratitude. Everyone on Facebook (my main contact with the outside world) is incredibly grateful. Due to the particularities of modern technology, I can occasionally check email/Facebook, can get on wireless for snippets of the day, but I can't take a warm shower, wash dishes in hot water, turn on a light, plug anything in, keep anything refrigerated, cook anything in the oven, or be anything but freezing in the apartment. (On the bright side, this may eliminate the need for a refrigerator, at least for all-but-dairy.) Things like a dishwasher and wireless internet will be truly above-and-beyond if/when restored.

I too have expressed thankfulness, including online, and will go on doing so. I'm grateful for an intact roof, for running water, for a husband who knows how to set up a fireplace, for a warm, furry lap dog, and, of course, for the luck thus far wrt falling tree limbs. But I'm not sure about the hyper-gratitude approach. I know that people mean well, but I'm not sure it's any great comfort to those who are screwed over (seriously, or just seriously inconvenienced) by this storm to get onto Facebook and learn how grateful some friend-of-a-friend is that he only lost power for five minutes, and how it really made him think.

For the people who were made to think, and then went out and volunteered somewhere, and are telling others how to join, that's something else. But there's a great deal of... I'm not sure what the right term for this is. On the site I'm using to check local news, there are all these people (no one I know personally) patting themselves on the back for having been nice to their baristas or power-company workers, and it's like, by all means, be appreciative, don't throw a hissy fit, Serenity Now. People explaining that one must use this time to teach children to be grateful and not to complain. And yeah, whining is poor form.

But at the same time, there are times when complaining is kind of the natural human response. I haven't had power since Monday evening, and it's unclear when it'll be restored. While that's certainly not the worst thing to happen to anyone, or even to me personally, it pretty much sucks. Assuming that complaining is in proportion to the problem, that you keep a sense of perspective, is this really so terrible? And are there really people out there not complaining, or is non-complaining a behavior smugly referred to online, but almost never practiced in real life?

12 comments:

caryatis said...

Good point. The social pressure to be "grateful" is a technique for squelching legitimate complaints which other people don't want to be bothered with.

I encountered this often as a teenager. I would complain about being mistreated or treated unfairly, and be told to shut up ("count your blessings") because I wasn't starving or being physically abused.

Also, as an atheist, I've never known who or what I'm supposed to be grateful to. If you think there is a deity who personally saved you from that tree branch, it makes sense to be grateful, but am I expected to feel gratitude towards blind fate?

Phoebe said...

"The social pressure to be "grateful" is a technique for squelching legitimate complaints which other people don't want to be bothered with."

Could be. I think it serves a variety of functions. One is a bit like "first-world problems" - it's a disclaimer that then makes it OK to broadcast updates about life being wonderful. It's OK to be lucky/privileged (and, in some cases, to hold forth about how great your life is) if you acknowledge it.

I guess it's also that there are times when this does and doesn't make sense. The way life works, if something very bad is happening to you, it does give you more appreciation for how much worse things would be if they were extremely bad.

And, speaking now of less extreme circumstances, of course my current lack of hot water makes more take note of having cold water, something I generally do take for granted. (I'm also an atheist, but I can still appreciate something - it's more of a grateful that than a grateful to.) So gratitude actually kind of does go hand in hand with complaining.

Miss Self-Important said...

According to Chris Christie's twitter (to which I may or may not subscribe...), you can get your laundry done for free by Tide's laundry charity (which apparently exists?) somewhere in the land of power outtage. Not sure if it's near you, but maybe. If not, you can at least complain about it not being close enough.

As for the ethics of complaining, complain away. It's unpleasant not to have hot water. Maybe don't write an op-ed to the NYT about the grave injustice of power outtages in the aftermath of gigantic storms, but I doubt that private complaining is going to arouse any long-term enmities. Gratitude can have several non-theistic bases, including Hobbes's, which is only activated when something is done for you for the purpose of creating future benefits for the gratifier, but not if it gives him any present pleasure or glory (b/c then the reward's been collected). A good Hobbesian need not be grateful for parents, friends, or charity, no less natural luck, only to banks that extend you loans on the expectation of repayment or the sovereign who refrains from killing you in exchange for your submission to him. This is all conducive to freedom - fewer annoying personal obligations.

PG said...

If you think there is a deity who personally saved you from that tree branch, it makes sense to be grateful, but am I expected to feel gratitude towards blind fate?

I also wonder about this because of the people who *have* been struck by tree branches (and thus made you sufficiently aware of the danger to be grateful for having been spared it).

In older religions (Greek, Hindu, etc.), there tends to be a theology in which the gods are not always benevolent. You are grateful that they have not struck you down because many of your religious stories are about people getting struck for *failing* to exhibit sufficient gratitude and attention to the gods. (There's a particular puja in Hinduism that often includes reciting the story of why we do this puja, which kind of boils down to "So our sons and husbands don't get drowned.") The question of "why do bad things happen to good people?" thus doesn't require lengthy apologetics: bad things happen to good people because the universe is not necessarily just.

Gratitude seems a stranger emotion to have toward a deity who is supposed to be good, all the time -- and yet there are the unfortunates who have been struck.

I wonder if the impulse to express gratitude, even among non-deists, comes from an older instinct in humans to appease angry gods. And that instinct certainly has a social dimension; if your neighbor's husband is in that boat with your husband, your neighbor's failures of gratitude toward the gods is gonna sink your family no matter how much incense you've burnt. So you express indignation toward those who have failed to be grateful.

(This is all distinct from being grateful to specified earthly entities. The last time I was inconvenienced by a storm, I was grateful to my roommate's dad for letting us shower at his place. And even if we don't receive direct benefits from them, we're always grateful to first responders, medical professionals, people in the military for doing what they do.)

PG said...

I think the "grateful to something that was much harder on others" is particularly odd to me because I feel vaguely guilty about having come out so well in a storm that initially was supposed to be incredibly bad for me (my building was in the "mandatory" evacuation area), but that wasn't -- because it veered north and was incredibly bad for people there instead. It's hard not to feel that in being grateful we didn't lose power or get flooded, I'm implicitly also being grateful that that was inflicted on someone else (e.g. Phoebe).

Phoebe said...

MSI,

I remember the ads for Tide's laundry charity post-Katrina. Interesting to know I might have benefitted, but we did plenty of laundry pre-storm. That, and wearing a t-shirt twice starts not to seem like a big deal when it's been four days since one's last proper shower.

Re: complaining privately, or via op-ed... I suppose what I'm talking about is the complaining that's somewhere between the two. Social media, say, or in person, with more than just one's spouse. My sense is that these situations bring about a greater-than-usual disparity between public face (appreciation) and private (waah!!!).

PG,

Interesting background. I don't believe the Jewish god is supposed to be all that benevolent, either. Job and all that.

Agreed re: gratitude to people helping out being different from gratitude for not being someone screwed over by the hurricane. Gratitude for being spared is too often phrased as, 'aren't we glad we're so lucky', sometimes shared in a space where not everyone reading that is part of the we. Again, 3G.

Britta said...

Congrats on getting your heat/electricity back. Being cold and dark sounds very miserable to me. I hope that your commute can get worked out better too.

I always interpreted the 'be grateful' as for one's own mental health, as in, going through life being miserable and resentful is worst for the person who does it, and having a healthy perspective on life makes one happier (and healthier). So, acknowledging that losing power is annoying, but not life threatening, can help make it more bearable. I think this is true especially with things one can't control, since one's attitude is often the only thing one does have control over, so one can choose to be not miserable. I think there's another angle, as PG pointed out, where this storm killed lots of people and washed away the homes of thousands more, so comparatively speaking, it actually could have been a lot worse. Recognizing that this storm damaged other peoples' lives irreparably I think can make one feel better/luckier at dealing with what will be in retrospect a temporary inconvenience. At the same time, complaining to friends and family, or to unaffected blog readers, seems like a great way to vent. Having no power, no heat, no hot water is miserable. Having to get somewhere with no easy way to get there is miserable, and I think it's fine to acknowledge that to an audience.

Moebius Stripper said...

My paternal grandmother was an exemplar of non-complaining. 20 years after her death, I still wonder if she'd be around today if she'd complained maybe a little more about her health, rather than grinning and bearing what turned out to be the symptoms of kidney cancer, which was finally diagnosed a decade or so after she started to feel ill.

Granted, illness is (occasionally) treatable on the individual level, whereas power failures during crisis thunderstorms are less so, but it's not even such a long stretch from "Having no electricity made me appreciate the truly important things in life" to signing on to various policy positions that treat 21st century infrastructure as luxury, or pork.

But even without going down that slope, yeah, a little complaining is fine. Life has ups and downs. It's unnatural and pointless to pretend that everything is 100% fine all the time.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

"I always interpreted the 'be grateful' as for one's own mental health, as in, going through life being miserable and resentful is worst for the person who does it, and having a healthy perspective on life makes one happier (and healthier)."

It certainly can be! And I'm definitely pro-perspective. But how it's expressed partly comes down to different self-presentations, cultural preferences, senses of humor. There's a kind of complaining that's self-deprecating, and not about actually being depressed, self-centered, etc. There are people who are hyper-sincere, hyper-positive, hyper-demonstrative, and others who are not. (Do the people who post frequent updates along the lines of "I love my life/family" love their lives, families, more than those who post non-somber but less explicitly delighted updates?) It's often but not always clear when someone actually confuses inconvenience with tragedy, and it's easy enough to pick a tone that works for some but not others.

But what PG was saying, about it feeling weird to use the greater suffering of others to feel better about one's own situation, I definitely hear that. I understand not whining about inconvenience with an audience of real victims, but it doesn't make me feel better to hear about horrible things happening to people who aren't me. And I'm not sure it's so great for those who've had it worse to hear the more fortunate holding forth on their fortune. What's intended as gratitude may read as gloating.

But with this storm specifically, the line between inconvenience and more-than-that has been, continues to be, unclear. There are, in some areas, trees/limbs on the cusp of falling at any time. Not having heat becomes a bigger deal the colder out it gets. Should any emergency arise, the fuel situation is not reassuring. Jobs can, will be lost when people will be unable to get to work. It's obviously better if one's house has not been swept away, but the merely-inconvenienced majority can't yet rest easy. Maybe this post was as much about gratitude as about the weirdness of being able to get online (ish) during a blackout.

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

"It's unnatural and pointless to pretend that everything is 100% fine all the time."

But that seems to be what's socially encouraged. It's OK to acknowledge and celebrate unearned luck (that's positivity) but to refer to life's annoyances is to do a great injustice to those actually suffering. When it's like, those actually suffering also experience annoyance...

Moebius Stripper said...

Oh, for sure; that something is unnatural and pointless has never stopped it from being socially encouraged. And positive thinking has become a cult of sorts. But it's odd; you say (and I agree), "For the people who were made to think, and then went out and volunteered somewhere, and are telling others how to join, that's something else."...but by the same token, someone just as easily could go from *complaining* about a lousy situation to taking action. Griping about a situation and doing something about it are hardly mutually exclusive!

(And here I think my health analogy holds up pretty well: "I feel crappy, this sucks" can lead pretty naturally to "I should go see a doctor." Mind you, a couple years back when I experienced a health scare and dared to share my fear with people (complaining!), I *still* got more than one well-meaning person tell me that "the important thing is to think positive" - more important, apparently, than taking my antibiotics and "whining" to medical experts about my ongoing symptoms.)

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

"Griping about a situation and doing something about it are hardly mutually exclusive!"

True!

Also true that there's a health analogy, or several. The cult of could-be-worse is too often extended to situations that are mighty bad all the same. Anything short of pancreatic cancer without health insurance is probably a case of could-be-worse, but a great many serious illnesses fall under that umbrella, and health insurance is great but not as great as good health to begin with. This came up, I remember, re: Ann Romney. There's whining, venting, and then there's legitimate complaining about about a legitimately bad situation that's still not the absolute worst humanity has ever encountered.