I like to listen to Dr. Ray Guarendi’s radio show in the morning when I’m making breakfast and doing dishes. One such morning, he talked about complaining and how most people do entirely too much of it. He suggested we try doing less of it.
I reflected on his advice while flipping pancakes, thinking of my average day and concluded that in my case, he was right. I complained a lot. When putting a microscope on my complaining habits, I was embarrassed by just how frequently I complained each day. In fact, as I stood there bothering about how much I complained, I realized I was muttering a complaint to myself about how I complain too much.
That night, I told my husband of my brilliant plan to stop complaining.
“Shouldn’t you maybe start small? Maybe go an hour a day without complaining just to kick things off instead of going cold turkey.” he said.
“You know that’s not my style. I like to jump in to the deep end and hit the ground running!” I retorted enthusiastically.
“First of all, you’re merging idioms and once again, it’s not working.” he said. “Secondly, I have a bad feeling this is going to end up like Lent 2012.”
He was referring to the year I really decided to take Lent seriously after my reversion to the faith. The desert monks, no strangers to mortification, would have cringed at the severity of the Lent I had planned for myself that year. About three weeks into it, my husband found me hiding in a closet with Netflix on my laptop, Facebook on my phone, a giant Mocha Latte in my hand and a plate with steak, chocolate chip cookie dough and a stick of butter resting on my stomach while I slept, so tired was I getting up very early in the morning for the rigorous prayer routine I’d laid out. He gave me a nudge and I woke with a start. “Don’t judge me.” was all I could weakly manage.
The memory was a little embarrassing, but kind of par for the course for me. “Say what you want, but I probably learned more about myself that Lent than any other Lent in my life.”
“I think we all learned a little bit too much about you that Lent.” he said, thinking of my head leaning back, eyes closed, mouth wide open, chocolate-tinged drool at the corner of my mouth, butter and steak sauce on the front of my shirt, foam from my latte on the tip of my nose.
“Not complaining will be a lot easier. Besides, I would think you would be completely ecstatic that I’ve decided to give up complaining. You usually bear the brunt of it.”
I watched him think it over a minute and then reply, “You’re right. Why should I not be okay with this? Carry on.”
With his blessing, I was bubbling over with enthusiasm.
“I’ll start tomorrow.” I said, getting a pen to write it on the calender, right underneath where I’d notated that my parents were flying into town for a week long visit.
“My parents are coming tomorrow.” I said, having completely forgotten about it in the excitement of turning over a new leaf.
“I know.” my husband said with a smirk that let me know he hadn’t forgotten.
“It’s okay.” I said casually. “God just wants to give me a little extra challenge.”
The smirk did not leave my husband’s face.
The next day went well. My parents flight didn’t get in until the afternoon, so I had a normal day home with the kids. The three oldest were even more uncooperative than usual with getting their school done, so in the interest of giving myself one less thing to complain about, I gave them the rest of the day off to help me clean up the house for the arrival of Nana and Pappy. Unfortunately, the children did not get caught up in the spirit of my experiment and spent most of the time griping until it was time to go to the airport making up for all the complaining I wasn’t doing.
Once we had met Nana and Pappy at the terminal that afternoon, however, all complaining stopped as it does when a visit is in its honeymoon stages. Everybody is on their best “company” behavior and there is much to catch up on after months away from each other.
I’m happy to report that I made it through my first day without a complaint.
“See.” I said to my husband. “Piece of cake.”
The following day was a bit more of a test, but nothing that with a little prayer and perseverance I couldn’t overcome.
It was April, so legally spring, and yet the outdoor temperature dropped into the 30s and it snowed. This took considerably more energy not to complain about than it would have for the average person because I already had a chip on my shoulder over the fact that year after year, the state of Missouri entirely skips the season of spring.
Then there was my 6-month old baby who had, over the last month or so, decided he could not sleep a wink if he wasn’t within one foot of me. So the quiet time I had from getting up at 5 am to give myself a couple of hours to get some work done uninterrupted now ended unceremoniously at 5:10 am. It had become a frustrating cycle of giving up sleep to get things done only to not get things done and losing that sleep for nothing.
And then that evening, as I settled into one of the two twin mattresses we had on the floor in the girls’ room as a makeshift giganta-bed so that my parents could have the master bedroom, I discovered it was covered in cracker crumbs. Luckily, I was so exhausted from getting up insanely early for no reason, snow shoveling and visiting with my parents all day that I fell asleep before a complaint could travel the distance from my brain to my mouth.
Each day over the next week brought with it little opportunities to not complain.
My mother waking me up at four every morning when she checked her Facebook. Ordinarily, this should have been an appropriately quiet activity to do while the whole house is asleep. However, my mother is no ordinary woman. Instead of typing her comments using the small touch screen included with her smart phone, she prefers to dictate her comments to the phone in a loud, robotic voice.
“LOOKS LIKE YOU HAD A GOOD TIME PERIOD”
“DID THE RAIN HOLD OFF UNTIL AFTER THE WEDDING QUESTION MARK”
“CAPITAL L CAPITAL O CAPITAL L”
If the loud robotic voice hadn’t woken me up each morning, there’s a good chance mom watching videos on her tablet would have. She likes to keep the volume roughly twenty to thirty decibels higher than where OSHA mandates ear protection at places of work.
Of course, not long after I get up, the baby gets up and won’t let me put him down.
My mother then asks me what we were having for breakfast and when. I tell her, once the kids get up. She asks a dozen times more until I get up to make breakfast to make the questions stop. It’ll be good to get an early start, I tell myself.
In the kitchen I wash up and let out a long, low sigh when I see that the dish towel is missing again. I have no idea why the kids always take off with that thing, but not having a towel to dry my hands on after I’ve washed them is such a pet peeve of mine. At least I’ll have a fresh, clean towel, I think, trying to see the bright side while I fetch another towel.
While cooking breakfast, I turn on the ceiling fan in the dining room because we don’t have a hood for the stove and the ceiling fan helps dispel the smoke a little to keep the smoke alarm from going off.
Temperature-wise, my mother is more sensitive than the most delicate of orchids. She needs her environment to equal that of a perfectly still, spring day in Hawaii in order to function. So you can imagine the risk I take by turning on the ceiling fan.
Each morning when I turn it on, my mother starts to shiver. Instead of getting a jacket or moving to a warmer spot until breakfast is done cooking, she starts to shiver more noticeably. When that doesn’t get the response she’s hoping for, she starts to rub the sides of her arms and say, “Oh that fan makes it so chilly in here.”
“It keeps the smoke alarms from going off.” I respond calmly, but inside my head I practically scream at the bacon to cook faster because I know that once she becomes verbal about the chill we are on borrowed time until…
“I’m sorry, I just can’t take the cold any longer.” she says as she flips the fan off.
Which means I have less than two minutes and thirty eight seconds to finish cooking breakfast before the smoke makes its way to the smoke alarm, sets it off and wakes up everyone else that is still sleeping.
I never finish in time. The haze forms up around us. The smoke alarm goes off. A toddler starts crying in the distance.
That toddler is going through a super fun phase in which she takes her diaper off and urinates right next to it on the floor (which are wood, thank goodness!). So I took the last of the bacon off the griddle and put it on the table before running down the hall to stop her from… too late. I catch a glimpse of her, having just evacuated her entire bladder only inches from the empty diaper on the floor, running giggling back to her bedroom. She’s well on her way to potty training, I say to myself, the best spin I could come up with.
Returning to the dining room after wrestling my toddler into a diaper, I suffer from an involuntary twitch when I notice a stick of butter on the table. I purchase tub butter so that I can use the pre-measured stick butter for baking. The tub butter is true butter and is specifically made to be more spreadable and yet someone keeps putting out the stick butter and only using it in increments that throws off the measurements on the paper. I can measure it out by hand. It will be an adventure, I say to myself as I sit down to eat.
Once the meal is over, my mother immediately starts asking what I am planning for the next one. This line of questioning does not end until we are eating the next meal at which time I have a small reprieve until she’s taken her last bite.
The baby fusses nearly non-stop, which is unusual for him. At first I think he is sensing unspoken frustration emanating off of me through our mother/baby bond, but then I see his two bottom teeth starting to emerge, so it turns out it’s just teething pain.
My toddler learned to open the fridge by herself and keeps stealing the parmesan. I only realize it’s missing when I notice her running around with the dust of parmesan cheese all over her face. She likes to dump it out and eat it off the floor like a dog. So I grab the broom and dustpan to go in search of a pile of parmesan cheese in need of sweeping up. I comfort myself with the thought that at least she is getting some dairy.
In the afternoon, my mother has to lay down for a nap, a by-product of getting up at four every morning. Without Nana to chat with and play games with and to be on their best behavior, the kids devolve into their more natural animalistic states and start fighting and tattling for the next couple of hours while I try to get the teething baby down for his afternoon nap which will last all of three minutes before the toddler is in there poking at him until he wakes up because for some insane reason that only makes sense to toddlers, overtired, screaming babies are hilarious to them. But not as hilarious as running down the hall while I’m trying to sooth the baby they just woke up, stepping out of their diaper and peeing right next to it.
After cleaning up the pee puddle with one of the old cloth diapers we use to clean up messes, some spray cleaner and a screaming baby on my hip, I run to toss the diaper into the laundry basket in the back bathroom but my parents have that door locked for privacy reasons. And the other door is through their room, where my mother is currently napping. So I just add the diaper to the, now mountainous, pile of dirty laundry on the floor next to the door that I keep forgetting to put into the laundry basket when the door is unlocked.
The five minutes it takes me to clean up the pee mess is generally just enough time for my toddler to get a box of Cheez Its off the top of the fridge and dump them all over our mattresses on the floor. I go to the back room to nurse the baby and find her jumping in her pile of cheddar crackers like it was a pile of leaves on a crisp autumn day. It’s kind of Montessori? Is my weak attempt at rose-colored glasses.
After nursing in a pile of crumbs, I put the baby in the backpack carrier and then take all the blankets and sheets outside to shake them off, pick the mattresses up off the floor to sweep underneath them and then remake up the mattresses again. The entire time the kindergartener and pre-schooler are sword fighting all around the room while taking turns tattling on each other for not playing according to the rules. Trying my best to referee, the rules, I find out, are being made up as they go. They’re so creative, my brain practically spits out.
Finding no further messes in the house and exhausted, I slump into the rocking chair with the baby. The door to the bedroom opens and my mom steps out looking refreshed.
“So what are we doing for dinner?”
This day kept playing itself out over and over like my own personal Groundhog Day but without the piano lessons. And I didn’t let out a single complaint. I held them in. I was the Hindenburg just waiting for a match to get too close.
My husband came home each night to a smiling wife and would ask how my day went with a curious look.
“It was great.” I’d say through clenched teeth and before anything else accidentally slipped out, “How was your day?”
He’d study my face for a moment, looking for signs of a psychotic break and then, not seeing them, he’d shrug and tell me about his day.
I held out for seven days. Seven days! I don’t want to go into all the gory details but suffice it to say, my husband found me on one of the mattresses on the floor in the girls’ room, covered in cracker crumbs, my toddler sitting on my shoulders (wearing a diaper for once, thank God!) spinning the missing dish towel while I was trying to nurse a fussing, teething baby and repeating, “I don’t know what we’re doing for dinner” over and over.
My husband promised not to say “I told you so” if I promised to give up the scorched earth approach and implement a more incremental plan. I agreed.
I learned a couple of things from my experiment, however. I learned that if you make a concerted effort to not be annoyed by people, you actually become less annoyed by people and can enjoy their company more. I learned that if you make a concerted effort to not be annoyed by circumstances you actually become less annoyed by the circumstances and can enjoy your life more. I also learned that it helps to remember that I probably give others plenty to complain about, as hard as that is to believe.
I realized to mitigate the complaint burden I put on others, I need to focus on lessening my annoyingness more and I need to try to lessen other people’s annoyingness less. Since making myself less annoying is, really, all I have control over. (Having zero control over other people’s faults is the Holy Grail of things to complain about!)
Perhaps in Purgatory, I will finally stop complaining entirely. I can imagine myself in prayer, enduring the purifying fires, excited to finally get a glimpse of heaven and then I hear a loud, robotic voice saying, “WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR LUNCH QUESTION MARK.”