I’m seeing positive feedback on my post from Wednesday: that’s good. I was worried about it. Worried that I might be accused of whining.
Is that ridiculous? The piece was intended to show the flaws in the teaching profession, by comparing it (It was also intended as an example of a compare/contrast essay, which my AP students recently wrote) to a profession that most people would rank far below teaching in terms of, say, desirability, or prestige; but I genuinely liked being a custodian, and if I didn’t need the money I make now, I would go back to being a custodian in a heartbeat. I’ve always harbored a secret wish that the custodians at the schools where I’ve worked would quit or retire while I was there, and I could slip into that position permanently. Maybe teach one class, or be available as an emergency substitutes; I want to think that my repertoire of teaching skills would make up for my lack of knowledge about things like plumbing and electrical.
Of course it wouldn’t.
But in criticizing the job I have now, I run a risk, a real risk, of being called a whiner. I know that doesn’t matter much, if other people sling that particular glob of mud at me; but I don’t want to get spattered with that. I was called a whiner a few days ago after I posted a Facebook status Sunday morning that said, “Can’t tell you how much I don’t want to grade essays.” Now, most of my friends — a large proportion of whom are English teachers, unsurprisingly — agreed with me, and sympathized. But one of my friends (A math teacher — so, y’know: evil. And heartless.) called me a whiner and sympathized with my wife for having to put up with my bitching all the time.
He was kidding. Of course he was. I don’t actually complain that much, at least not on Facebook — and he complains all the damn time, frequently to me; and I do complain back. I knew he was kidding. But it still hurt. Genuinely, though not that intensely.
See? There I go again. Complaining about a slight emotional pain, like it’s anything that matters when there are people out there in the world, people no less important than I am, starving while they die of ebola. This is the point where a conservative would call me a special snowflake and ask if I need a safe place to hide from the trigger warnings. (Or if not a conservative, then an asshole.) He might tell me to suck it up, to man up, to be the strong, silent type. To grow a pair and stop being a pussy. At which point one of the several feminists whom I am friends with — most likely my wife — would chew him out; and this asshole (And yes, I am friends with assholes, too, though not very many) might ask what is wrong with feminists, because what do women have to complain about? They have it easier than men! If anyone has a right to bitch, it’s got to be men.
This is why I wanted to write about this: because this seems to have become a trend these days, and a pervasive and pernicious one. We seem to have the idea — and maybe we always have, and I’m only now noticing it for some reason — that people generally shouldn’t complain, shouldn’t bitch, shouldn’t speak up when something bothers them: either because you have to earn a right to complain, usually by being worse off than anyone else who could hear you complain; or because speaking up about being perturbed is seen as weakness: either it’s showing fear, which will make the wolves attack you (Or the sharks, or the Guinea pigs, or what have you), or it’s letting them see you sweat, which just encourages the bastards, because they know they can get to you.
We’re supposed to take it in silence, preferably with call0us indifference; my students say all the time that mean things or bad things don’t bother them because they just don’t care — “I don’t care what those girls over there say about me, because I don’t care what they think, it doesn’t bother me at all.” And somewhere in there is the idea that you should never tell those mean girls that what they’re saying is hurtful, or else they’ll say it more (Though really, if you aren’t bothered by it, it shouldn’t matter if they keep saying mean things, because those mean things don’t bother you. Right?).
But see, I don’t think that. I think you should tell someone that something they said is hurtful. I think that you are encouraging them with silence: because if you don’t complain, that’s when they believe they can get away with anything. Complainers get left alone, it seems to me; because nobody wants the hassle.
There is more, however. This isn’t just an issue of calling obnoxious people on their nonsense. It’s also about whether one has to earn the right to bitch.
My wife gets caught in this trap. She complains to me about teaching, about the many, many problems she has as a first-year teacher — and not only a first-year teacher, but an art teacher at a STEM school. But whenever she complains to me, when she really gets going, then once she finishes and pauses for breath she — apologizes. Every time. And not because I’ve started complaining about her complaining, not because I’m sitting there rolling my eyes and saying, ‘Oh my GOD, will you PLEASE stop that?!?” No: she apologizes for the same reason that I didn’t like being called a whiner on Facebook: because we know whiners, and we don’t like them. We don’t want to be seen as that kind of querulous, egocentric person. She also, I think, apologizes when she complains because I’ve been a teacher longer, and there are problems that are unique to my job that she doesn’t have to deal with — the essays, mainly. Those damn essays and all their need for grading. So much grading. Of course, she has problems that I don’t have, mainly being a department of one, and having been screwed by her predecessor who didn’t leave anything useful behind — no teaching materials, no lesson plans, none of the good quality art supplies — so she has to create everything she does from scratch, and stay on top of inventory and all, in addition to being overworked like every new teacher is, and undervalued as the one art teacher in a STEM school.
But see, that’s just it: why must she have it harder than me before she feels like she has a right to complain to me? (This is all mitigated, of course, by the fact that I am her husband, and so she has every right to complain to me about anything that is bothering her, no matter how small, no matter how large, forever and always.) Why do I feel like she has more right to complain to me because I think she has it harder?
Why is it that the only person who gets to complain without guilt is the most miserable person on the planet, and all the other 7 billion-plus of us have to say, “Well, this bugs me, but — other people have it worse. At least I’m not a leper in a Turkish prison or something.” And the leper in the Turkish prison is saying, “Well, they knock some of my toes off every time they beat the soles of my feet with the bastinado, but at least I’m not living in a country run by Donald Trump.”
So I’d like to propose a new rule. The new rule is this: everyone has the right to complain, any time, to anybody, depending on what their goal is for that complaint.
If your goal is to vent, to simply let off steam; if your audience needs do nothing more than nod every once in a while and make sympathetic noises somewhere between, “Mmmmhm” and “I hear you, man, totally,” then you have the absolute right to complain. I suppose somebody who isn’t in the mood to listen could ignore you or walk away, but generally speaking, we should listen to each other. Venting is healthy. It is valuable, because talking through your problems can often help you come to a solution. And the listener needs to be nothing more than a slightly more human version of a brick wall.
Okay? You don’t have to earn your complaining time, you don’t have to be the most miserable one in the room. You are a person; you have the right to feel, and to express how you feel; and it is reasonable to ask someone to listen to you, particularly your friend or your family. And I will stop feeling bad about describing my trials and tribulations on this blog; because if you don’t want to read what I write, if you feel I am too whiny, then you don’t have to read it. Feel free to walk away, and no hard feelings.
If your goal in complaining is to call attention to a problem, to let a jerk know that you recognize his jerkishness, then you have the same unlimited right to speak up. If you choose to be silent instead, okay — but I think it valuable for jerks to be called on their jerkery. No, it probably won’t stop them from continuing to jerkify all over the place, especially if all you do is call them out and point out the jerkage, without also punishing them in some way; but it does at least let them know that they have lost, or risk losing, whatever trust and faith and goodwill you harbor for them. Letting a jerk know you don’t trust him may not stop him from being a jerk — but he’ll know that he can’t count on your trust to pull him out of any truly deep hole he digs with his jerkosity.
And the same goes for political complaining: I don’t give a fuck if conservatives didn’t march in protest of Obama’s political stances or actions (Even though they did), if people — say, millions and millions of American women, and women all around the world — want to bring attention to a danger they see, actual or potential, they have every right to stand up and speak out about that danger, about that problem, about that issue. It isn’t weakness if all you’re seeking is to call attention to it. Standing up to say something is rotten in the state of Denmark? That would be strength, thank you very much. That would be determination, and courage.
If your goal is to gain sympathy for your troubles, well — that is different. That requires you to have some awareness and sensitivity about the relationship you have with the person whose sympathy you seek. Which means you probably shouldn’t seek sympathy, overt protestations of sympathy, from random strangers. That might be a genuine imposition. Because sympathy takes work: it puts an emotional strain, even if not a terribly large one, on the sympathizer, which is why it’s generally so nice for the sympathizee. So there, I can see a need for consideration — and someone getting pissed off when asked to sympathize one too many times, or when they themselves are in greater need of sympathy than the person doing the complaining.
If your goal is to gain something even more valuable, and even more onerous for your listener to give you — like money, or help moving into your new house, or a bite of their ice cream sandwich — then you may need to shut up. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be callous nor to contradict myself: but I’m talking about the right to vent, not the right to pout while staring at my Klondike bar. Nobody has the right to do that. Okay, my wife does, but none of the rest — right, and my dog. But that’s it!
Stay the hell away from my ice cream. I need it. Wait’ll I tell you about my day…