How to Complain

As weird as it sounds, complaining is an art form. Just as we can appreciate the difference between a landscape painting of William Blake and a painting of a landscape featuring a sun (always confusingly wearing sunglasses) by our 6 year old niece; we can likewise appreciate the difference between a person who complains and one who whines; between the artist of airing grievances and the cruder verbal ramblings of the untrained conversationalist.

Landscape at Sunset, William Blake, 1874.

The whiner, like the complainer, has a problem; they both share the facts of the problem with those around them. But, the whiner remains at a particularly surface level of engagement with the problem. They will exclaim how it is so horrible that this thing has happened, how it is so unfair and cruel, and probably God is just punishing them for their very arrogance to exist. The whiner sticks with a problem but never goes beyond it. They do not connect dots, dive deeper, or see how an issue inextricably connects to actions they may have previously taken.

The complainer, on the other hand, engages with their dismay differently. Properly complaining is to connect a problem with the deeper issues feeding it, alongside the preceding actions that may have caused it. They say something is bad, but they also explain, in their own way, why.

To highlight the difference, consider the case of a back injury. The whiner will go on about how much pain they’re in, why it is so rotten that bad things happen to good people, and express frustration about how they can’t do what they want to anymore because of the pain. One who understands the art of complaining, however, will approach it differently. They will observe that while it is terrible they have a back injury, what is most sad is how they never took the importance of a strong lower back seriously. They were lax and complacent, and this is the result. They feel less than human now, different, even disabled, and being different and lesser than those around them has always been something they were worried about; childhood trauma is manifesting in the most brutal of ways.

The complainer inspects their complaint, unpacks it, connects it, and in the process gives a detailed and personal picture. They are like Blake’s landscape painting; broad brushstrokes here, softs touches there, and layers upon layers drawing you in to a unified and sentimental offering of the soul. The whiner does not do this. They say things are bad and that’s that. They are like the crude single line landscape paintings of a child. You can infer there is a landscape, but the painting lacks the detail to convey any sense of what is important to the painter.

The art of complaining lies in going beyond the problem itself, drawing out the personal, and giving insight into the rocky topography of one’s emotional landscape. What makes whining so alienating and proper complaining so fruitful is because when people ask what is wrong, they are really asking what is wrong with you; the insight and clarity the artist of complaining possess allows us to empathise in their pain, and connect with them on a significantly more personal, intimate, and gratifying level.

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