Complaint

I aspire to being a good stoic. Orient your perceptions, will, and actions to accepting what you cannot change and changing what you can. All well and good, but what about the human tendency to complain. How does it jibe with stoicism and is complaining a problem? If you can do something about the source of your complaint, then perhaps you should get on with that. If you can do nothing about it then complaining is not a stoic course of action. This presumes that the point of the complaint is to change things.

First off, let’s define complain - to express dissatisfaction or annoyance about a state of affairs or an event. Seems a good start. If I can effect change by issuing a complaint about something then perhaps I should do it. Otherwise, how does it help? In a couple ways perhaps. First off, it’s cathartic. Sometimes it just feels good to get things off your chest and give the world a piece of your mind. Expressing irritation can help you process a situation, leading perhaps to the action or acceptance that you seek. Second, it’s actually a way of connecting with other people. A recognition of our mutual existence and a shared bit of empathy at our human experience. Third, something might actually get done about it if enough people push for change. One way to generate said push is to communicate frustration about the problem.

At what point does complaining lead to unhappiness? The same way in which all negativity leads to unhappiness, by dwelling on it. When the complaint becomes the default path, the default narrative when you think of something or move through the world, then you have created a problem. Yes, reality does not conform to our expectations. Sometimes it is acceptable to express frustration at this state of affairs. The key point is that it should be infrequent. Complain too often and you’re creating a wiring problem in your head. Complain too often and the world listens less to what you say.

As with all things, there is an element of balance that must come into play. You may choose not to complain. Based on your nature this may be the best course of action. On the rare occasion that I do enter into a rant, I try to do so in a way that is at least somewhat witty and entertaining. I’m not a comedian by any stretch, but well-delivered humor or sarcasm is a reasonable side-channel for expressing complaint. The point of stoicism (as well as the modern admonitions against complaining) is simply as a rule to help you avoid the default. Complaint can get in the way of our better nature. I suspect it’s impossible to both complain and be truly grateful at the same time.

“To exchange dissatisfactions is to acknowledge another person’s existence, and to share rueful mutual sympathy at the sometimes tremendously irritating predicament of having been born.” — Oliver Burkeman