Over the last couple of weeks, I have had several interesting conversations about complaining. One friend gave up complaining for Lent. (It is not going very well, in her opinion.) Someone else was telling me about how hard they are finding things at the moment and then said, “But I chose this and others have it so much worse, so I shouldn’t complain.” In the last several weeks, my own grief has included a fair share of arguing with God about how things could have been. While I resonate with ditching bad habits and growing towards God, I want to know how, exactly, we are defining complaining…
Here’s the thing. For years leading up to my own journey into and through depression, I did not complain very much or very often. When things were hard, frustrating, terrifying, or awful, I kept a positive attitude, tried to see things differently, or compared my situation to something worse. When I was overwhelmed, I worked harder and committed more. And eventually I found myself depressed and drowning in the hard stuff I had refused to let out. I have read so many articles about ditching the complaining, and how bad it is for us, but what if there is time for complaining and feeling defeated?
I think pain has a higher density than ease and joy. Packed into small places, pain is pressurized. Just like my body braces a bit when I open a bottle, I am hesitant to open the containers holding my pain. It might pop in ways I cannot control. I do not like feeling out of control. So I pretend until something or someone outside me pokes a hole in my denial, my pretending, my having it all together. That poke releases pressurized pain like a volcano, erupting with molten frustration that burns the people I love, and leaves ash in the air of my relationships. Then I beat myself up for failing and add more pain, and more resolve to keep the explosions from happening.
From the cross, which my church will spend all next week contemplating, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). I went to graduate school to learn that this is the first line of Psalm 22, and that the Jewish practice was to refer to the Psalms by first line rather than by number. This psalm is a lament. It ends with trust that God will deliver the sufferer, but not before it says all the things we feel when we suffer. Alone. Despised. Misunderstood. Wrong. Ashamed. Afraid.
We are going to feel these things. Jesus felt them, and I dare say that it is even a gift of our existence that we have the capacity to feel them. Talking about them is not a sin, but clinging to them is. Whining about the challenges of my life with no desire to be loved, challenged, or grown makes me a victim and my loved ones weighted down and burdened; in the same way, denying my pain, stuffing it into the corners of my soul, and refusing to breathe it through my lips leaves me isolated and believing that this pain makes me unlovable or burdensome.
Jesus asks his friends to stay with him, to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). He begs God for another way and he sweats (Luke 22:42-44). In the midst of pain, Jesus releases the pain, draws himself into his – imperfect – community, and cries out to God. We get to cry out. We get to ask for help, to wish for another way, to give ourselves time to accept what cannot be avoided. But there is a time for every season under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3) and that means there is a time to complain and feel defeated.
Of course we need to stop the complaining that needlessly and endlessly dumps our pain on others so we can drag them down with us. And, we need to stop the martyrdom that denies our pain. Pain needs a release valve, though. Some people, places, and spaces are not safe for my pain. Releasing in these places causes more harm – for me and for others.
And yet, I need places in my life where it is possible to be in the middle of a messy road to somewhere yet unknown. There are beautiful spaces where it is safe to simply say what feels unjust, irritating, or wrong. Spoken aloud, these things lose some of their power and their pressure. My people keep showing me that they can handle me defeated. They love me when I have nothing left. Many assure me that they have felt that way themselves. God can also handle my pain and turn it into something beautiful.
I need to whisper into the light all the things I fear. My pain is lessened when it is shared with another who can help me to carry it, even though they cannot take it away. I have found that my perspective usually changes when someone else gives me permission to laugh at my own restricted vision. The only way through to resurrection is the cross. My negative feelings and thoughts can become the ground out of which new life grows, if I neither cling to them nor hide them away. I do not need fixing when I am angry, hurting, lonely, and exhausted. I just need a rest, and a friend.