Chapter 1 I Complain Therefore I Am
Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain. —Lily TomlinComplain:
(verb) 1: to express grief, pain, or discontent <complaining about the weather> 2: to make a formal accusation or charge —The Merriam–Webster Dictionary
There are four stages to become competent at anything. In becoming a Complaint Free person, you will go through each of them and, sorry, you can’t skip steps. You can’t jump over them and effect lasting change. Some of the stages last longer than others. Everyone’s experience with them varies. You might soar through one stage and then become stuck in another for a long time, but if you stay with it you will master this skill. VOICES
Like most of the other folks who took up the Complaint free challenge, I quickly discovered exactly how many of the words I spoke in daily interactions were complaints. For the first time, I really heard myself when I vented about work, whined about my aches and pains, bemoaned political and world issues, and complained about the weather. What a shock to realize how many of my words held negative energy–and I considered myself such a positive person! —Marty Pointer, Kansas City, MO
The four stages to competency are:
1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence
In “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” Thomas Gray gave us the saying “ignorance is bliss.” As you become a Complaint Free person, you begin in the bliss of ignorance, move through the turmoil of transformation, and arrive at true bliss. Right now, you are in the Unconscious Incompetence stage. You are unconscious about your being incompetent. You don’t realize (are unconscious) as to how much you complain (are incompetent).
Unconscious Incompetence is as much a state of being as a stage of competency. This is where we all begin. In Unconscious Incompetence you are pure potential, ready to create great things for yourself. There are exciting new vistas about to be explored. All you have to do is be willing to go through the remaining steps.
Many people are an “ouch!” looking for a hurt. If you cry “ouch,” the hurt will show up. If you complain, you’ll receive more to complain about. It’s the Law of Attraction in action. As you complete these stages, as you leave complaining behind, as you are no longer an “ouch” looking for a hurt, your life will unfold for you like a beautiful spring flower.
One of the questions I’m often asked is “Can I never complain…ever!?” To which I answer, “Of course you can complain.” I say this for two reasons:
1. I’m not out to tell you or anyone else what to do. If I were, I’d be trying to change you, and that means I’m focusing on something about you I don’t like. I’d be expressing discontent about you and, by inference, complaining. So you can do whatever you want. It’s your choice.
2. Sometimes it makes sense to complain.
Now, before you feel you’ve found your loophole in number 2 above, consider that word “sometimes” and remember that I and many, many people have gone three consecutive weeks–that’s 21 days, or 504 hours in a row–without complaining at all. No complaints, zero, I Complain Therefore I Am 25 zip! When it comes to complaining, “sometimes” means “not very often at all.” Complaining should happen infrequently; criticism and gossip, never. If we are honest with ourselves, life events that lead us to legitimately complain (express grief, pain, or discontent) are exceedingly rare. Most of the complaining we do is just a lot of “ear pollution” detrimental to our happiness and well-being.
Check yourself. When you complain (express grief, pain, or discontent), is the cause severe? Are you complaining frequently? Has it been a month or more since you complained? If you’re complaining more than once a month, you might just be giving in to habitual griping, which doesn’t serve you. You’re an “ouch” looking for a hurt.
To be a happy person who has mastered your thoughts and has begun creating your life by design, you need a very, very high threshold of what leads you to express grief, pain, and discontent. The next time you’re about to complain about something, ask yourself how the situation stacks up to something that happened to me a few years ago.
I was sitting in my office preparing a lesson. The home we lived in at the time was located at a sharp bend in the road. Drivers had to slow down to make the curve, and just 200 yards past our house the city road became a county highway and the speed limit changed from 25 mph to 55 mph. As a result, we lived on an acceleration/deceleration lane. If it weren’t for the curve in the road, our home would have been in a very dangerous place. It was a warm spring afternoon and the lace curtains flapped softly in the breeze from the open windows. Suddenly, I heard a strange sound. There was a loud thud, followed by a scream. It wasn’t the scream of a person, but rather that of an animal. Every animal, just like every person, has a unique voice, and I knew this voice well. It was our long-haired golden retriever, Ginger. Normally, we don’t think of dogs screaming. Barking, howling, whimpering—yes; but screaming is something we rarely hear. But that’s exactly what Ginger was doing. She had been hit, and she lay in the road shrieking with pain not twenty feet outside my window. I shouted and ran through the living room and out the front door, followed by my wife, Gail, and my daughter, Lia. Lia was six at the time.
As we approached Ginger, we could tell she was badly hurt. She was using her front legs to try to stand, but her hind legs did not seem to be helping. Again and again she yowled in pain. Neighbors poured from their homes to see what was causing the commotion. Lia just kept saying her name, “Ginger…Ginger…,” as the tears flowed down her cheeks and wet her shirt.
I looked around for the driver who had hit Ginger but saw no one. Then I looked up the hill that marked the line between city road and county road and saw a truck, towing a trailer, cresting the hill and accelerating past 55 mph. Even though our dog lay there in agony, my wife stood in shock, and my daughter cried piteously, I was consumed with confronting the person who had hit Ginger. “How could anyone do this and just drive off?!” I thought. “He was just coming around the curve…surely he saw her, surely he knew what happened!”
Abandoning my family in the midst of their pain and confusion, I jumped into my car and spun out of the driveway, leaving a plume of dust and gravel. Sixty, 75, 83 miles per hour along the gravel-and-dirt road in pursuit of the person who had hit Lia’s dog and left without so much as facing us. I was going so fast on the uncertain surface that my car began to feel as if it were floating tenuously above the ground. In that moment, I calmed myself enough to realize that if I were killed while driving, it would be even harder on Gail and Lia than Ginger’s having been hurt. I slowed down just enough to control my car as the distance between me and other driver closed.
Turning into his driveway and still not realizing I was after him, the man stepped from his truck in a torn shirt and oily jeans. I skidded in behind him and jumped from my car, screaming, “You hit my dog!!!” The man turned and looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. With blood raging in my ears, I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly when he said, “I know I hit your dog…What are you going to do about it?” After regaining my connection with reality, I shot back, “WHAT?!? What did you say?!” He smiled as if he were correcting an errant child and then said again, in slow, deliberate words, “I know I hit your dog…Exactly what are you going to do about it?”
I was blind with rage. In my mind I kept seeing Lia in my rearview mirror standing over Ginger and crying. “Put up your hands,” I yelled. “What?” he said. “Put up your hands,” I said again. “Defend yourself…I’m going to kill you!”
A few moments before, reason had kept me from killing myself while driving in a white–hot rage to find this guy. Now his dismissive and cavalier comment about having painfully wounded a pet I dearly loved had vanquished all reason. I had never been in a fight in my adult life. I didn’t believe in fighting. I wasn’t sure I knew how to fight. But I wanted to beat this man to death. In that moment, I didn’t care if I ended up in prison.
“I ain’t gonna fight you,” he said. “And if you hit me, it’s assault, mister.” My arms raised, my fists clinched tight as diamonds, I stood there dumbfounded. “Fight me!” I said. “No, sir,” he said, smiling through his remaining teeth, “I ain’t gonna do no such thing.” He turned his back and slowly walked away. I stood there shaking, anger poisoning my blood.
I don’t remember driving back to my family. I don’t remember lifting Ginger up and taking her to the vet. I do remember the way she smelled the last time I held her and the way she whimpered softly as the vet’s needle ended her suffering. “How could a person do such a thing?” I asked myself repeatedly.
Days later, the man’s jagged smile still haunted me as I tried to sleep. His “What are you going to do about it?” rang in my ears. I visualized exactly what I would have done to him had we fought. In my visions I was a superhero destroying an evil villain. Sometimes, I imagined I had a baseball bat or other weapon and was hurting him, hurting him as badly as he had hurt me, my wife, my daughter, and Ginger.
On the third night of unsuccessful attempts to sleep, I got up and began to write in my journal. After spilling out my grief, pain, and discontent for nearly an hour, I wrote something surprising: “Those who hurt are hurting.” Taking in my words as if they were from someone else, I wondered aloud, “What?” Again I wrote, “Those who hurt are hurting.” I sat back, brooding in my chair, and listened to the spring peepers and the crickets celebrating the night. “Those who hurt are hurting? How could that apply to this guy?”
As I thought more about it, I began to understand. A person who could so easily hurt a treasured family pet must not know the love of companion animals as we do. A person who can drive away as a young child folds into tears could not know the love of a young child. A man who cannot apologize for spearing a family’s heart must have had his heart speared many, many times. This man was the real victim in this story. Truly he had acted as a villain, but it came as a result of the depth of pain within him.
I sat a long time, letting this all sink in. Every time I began to feel angry at him and the pain he caused, I thought of the pain this man must live with on a daily basis. In time, I switched off the light, went to bed, and slept soundly.Complain
: to express grief, pain, or discontent.
During this experience, I felt grief
. Ginger had shown up five years ago at our home in rural South Carolina. Several dogs had come to our home wanting to stay, but Gibson, our other dog, always ran them off. For some reason, he let Ginger stay. There was something special about Ginger. We presumed from her demeanor that she had been abused prior to coming to us. And, because she especially shied away from me, it was probably a man who had hurt her. After a year or so, she had begun to tentatively trust me. And in the remaining years, she had become a true friend. I deeply grieved her passing.
I certainly felt pain
, real emotional pain that tore at my soul. Those of us with children know that we would rather endure any pain than have our children do so. And the pain my Lia was going through redoubled my own.
I felt discontent
. I felt torn for not having thrashed the guy as well as for having considered acting violently in the first place. I felt ashamed for having walked away from him and equally ashamed for having chased after him in the first place.
Grief. Pain. Discontent.
When this man hit Ginger, it was appropriate for me to have felt and to have expressed each of these. You may have experienced something equally difficult at some time in your life. Fortunately, such traumatic events are rare. Similarly, complaining (expressing grief, pain, or discontent) should be rare.
But for most of us, our complaints are not sourced by such deeply painful experiences. Rather, we’re the character in the Joe Walsh song “Life’s Been Good”—we can’t complain, but sometimes we still do. Things are not really bad enough to warrant expressing grief, pain, or discontent, but complaining is our default setting. It’s what we do.
Ignorance is bliss. Prior to beginning your trek down the path to becoming a Complaint Free person, you were probably blissfully unaware as to how much you complain and the damaging effect of your complaints on your life. For many of us, griping about the weather, our spouse, our work, our bodies, our friends, our jobs, the economy, other drivers, our country, or whatever we are thinking about is something we do dozens of times each and every day. Yet few of us realize how often we complain.
The words come out of our mouths, so our ears must hear them. But, for some reason, they don’t register as complaints. Complaining can be likened to bad breath. We notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it comes from our own.
Chances are you complain a lot more than you think. And now that you’ve accepted the 21–day challenge to become complaint free, you have begun to notice it. You start moving the bracelet from wrist to wrist, and you realize how much you kvetch (Yiddish for “complain”—I’m not Jewish, but I really like the word).
Up until this point, you would probably have said, honestly, that you don’t complain—much, anyway. Certainly, you think that you only complain when something is legitimately bothering you. The next time you’re tempted to justify your complaining, remember Ginger’s story and ask yourself if what you’re going through is that bad. Then resolve to keep your pledge to not complain.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen. Copyright © 2007 by Will Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.