Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No Whining

Q:“A friend recently told me he was growing tired of my negativity. I guess I do complain a lot, but most of the time I can't muster a more positive response. Life's inherent unfairness and difficulty leave me little choice. There's an old saying: ‘If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.’ How can anyone who's paying attention also not spend much of his time grumbling?”

“[W]hen the weather does not happen to be fair for sailing, we sit in distress and gaze out perpetually.

‘Which way is the wind?’


‘What good will that do us? When will the west wind blow?’

When it pleases, friend, or when Aeolus pleases; for God has not made you the dispenser of the winds, but Aeolus.

‘What, then, is to be done?’

To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.

...[I must] distinguish between what is mine and what is not mine—what I can and what I cannot do. I must die. Must I die groaning, too? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must be exiled; does anyone keep me from going smiling, and cheerful, and serene?

-Epictetus, AD c 55-135, Discourses, 1.1, translation by Higginson, Matheson

As maxims go, this may be one of the most helpful left to us by the great first-century Stoic teacher Epictetus: “Make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.” It is of a piece with two other foundational bits of Stoic wisdom, also from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things” and “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” The logic is undeniable, but the next step—I may as well stop whining about things I can’t control—can be a hurdle.

It is dismaying, at this late date, to reflect on how much of my life has been given over to complaining about problems that cannot be solved by the mere act of complaining. It’s not just me; whining as a coping strategy has been a favorite dodge of the beleaguered human psyche for millennia, from Achilles moping in his tent to today’s disappointed voters at any given point of the political compass. Whining’s staying power as a human response is, in some ways, a mystery: Not only is it utterly ineffective as a problem-solving strategy, it is also deeply unappealing (think of a long car trip with a chronic complainer). Few character traits are more weakly self-indulgent or more tiresome to endure in others. And for the complainer himself, to the extent that his whining (or its more bitter and entrenched cousin, cynicism) becomes a habitual response, it colors everything, effectively blocking his path to a happy, flourishing life, or even the simple enjoyment of life’s smaller pleasures. It is also a substantial impediment to taking effective, constructive action in the world.

Whining does offer at least one psychological payoff, though it’s not an attractive one. Seneca, writing in the first century A.D., counsels a grief-stricken friend that it’s time, at long last, to put aside her sorrowing: “...this state of unhappiness and misery, with its self-inflicted anguish, feeds finally on its own bitterness, and the pain felt by an unhappy mind becomes an unhealthy pleasure.” Some 1900 year later, Katharine Angell, New Yorker fiction editor and wife of essayist, hypochondriac, and occasional whiner E.B. White, wrote to her husband in a similar vein: “The frustration motif continued for a lifetime doesn’t give anyone much happiness. There’s a certain satisfaction in it, but not the best kind.” We are all familiar with that “unhealthy pleasure,” the “certain satisfaction” derived from self-inflicted misery; it lives in the same psychological cul-de-sac as self-pity and the martyr complex. And as many times as we resort to it—and we all have—we recognize it as an unworthy attitude even as we’re stoking it.

The impulse to moan about our circumstances is one of those twists of human psychology that, like procrastination or blame-shifting, might temporarily help us feel better about ourselves in relation to the things, people, and situations that vex us, but that ultimately impede our progress toward equanimity and self-mastery. It’s just one of the many ways passion can overshadow reason when we’re not paying attention. A key Stoic precept is “making correct use of impressions“—in other words, doing our best to see things as they are and respond rationally. Gaining an accurate view of any challenging situation, a view not colored by emotional overreaction or fogged by one of our many reflexive psychological ploys, is the first step toward setting things right.

That can be a tough step to take, because while whining is ineffective, annoying, emotionally immature, and all the rest, it does at least have one thing going for it: It’s easy. Easier, often, than facing a difficult situation squarely and working to change things for the better. “Making the best of what is in our power” can be a tall order, calling for a certain amount of grit that may be lacking in our character or that may have atrophied through lack of use. But when we do manage to insert a small wedge between an inciting event and a whining response, that brief pause can allow for a more clear-eyed, rational reaction that will keep our complaining in check and, often, reveal a solution to the original problem. It’s surprising how much ends up being “in our power” when we are able to keep a cool head. We won’t always remember to insert that wedge in time, but by paying attention and making a conscious effort, we can improve our percentage.