“Law No. 1 on the protection of health and welfare. No complaining allowed! Violators are subject to victimhood syndrome resulting in lowered mood and problem-solving ability. The size of the penalty is doubled if the violation is committed in the presence of children…”
The above text can be found written on a sign that psychotherapist Salvo Noah made and donated to Pope Francis at the end of the General Audience on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Now this sign is hanging on the door of the Pope’s study!
“Forbidden to complain.” How is it possible to obey this prohibition when everything in the day goes wrong, when we watch the news or when our health is not what it used to be? Is it always forbidden, or can we learn to complain well, that is, to share our feelings in a healthy way?
I confide to you that the writer of this meditation is a professional in the art of complaining. I am not proud of it — on the contrary — but it is hard for me to give up this habit. That is why I have been trying for years to learn from the various teachers of the Bible at least how to practice it better. I found that the prophet Jeremiah, in fact, composed an entire book of Lamentations; the author of the Psalms was even more unrestrained, so much so that 11 are legitimately called “Psalms of Lamentation” (Ps. 44, 58, 60, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 90, 125). We also have many examples from the book of Job and from the prophet Jonah. Even Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem in Matthew chapter 23 and He prays Psalm 21 while hanging on the Cross.
Who of us does not find him or herself, at least sometimes, addressing God in this way?
“Look, Lord, how much I am in anguish…no one comforts me.” (Lam. 1:20-21)
“Tired I am of my life! I will give free rein to my lament, I will speak in the bitterness of my heart.” (Job 10:1)
“‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? You are far from my salvation’: these are the words of my lament.” (Psalm 21:2)
If there are so many prayers of lament in the Bible, then, at least with the Lord, can we feel freer to vent our feelings?
If we go to the etymology of the word we discover something interesting: the word “lament” is made to derive from the Latin claméntum (same root as “to call” or “clamor”), which expresses the cry, an “audible” externalization of pain. We see, therefore, that a first distinguishing characteristic of complaining is precisely that of calling the attention of others. Grievance is made not to be ignored but, rather, to be heard by someone: it thus has a relational dimension.
And what is the Person who loves us most and who never turns away his ears and gaze from his children, who is able to read hearts and understand the saddest and most hidden feelings, who never tires for a moment of listening to us, if not the Father who is in Heaven? That is why, with God, as the little and great saints teach us, we can talk as children do with their parents, with confidence and spontaneity, but also with trust and hope. We can express to Him what we have inside, asking Him to come with his grace in our fears, in our sorrows; with his peace in our anger and anxiety; with his patience in our feelings of disappointment, discouragement and impatience. Our complaint thus becomes a “golden” opportunity to grow in our filial relationship with God, to the point of experiencing that we are never alone!
Certainly we can find in God the one who understands and welcomes us more than any other, yet we know how much we also need to find a listening ear in the people around us. If we are sad, worried, or disappointed, it is natural to desire the opportunity to express these sentiments of ours, to talk about the problems that torment us, to seek comfort and help. At such times, it is very helpful to share our emotions and experiences with people close to us, to give voice to our feelings; by not doing so, we risk holding everything inside and increasing our disquiet.
However, how do we distinguish whether we are just complaining in an unproductive and sterile way, or whether we are truly sharing our difficult feelings? To understand this we might ask ourselves a few questions.
How often do I express negative moods? If I do this all the time, dumping my frustrations on others out of habit, then I am likely in the complaining camp.
Have the things I complain about been the same for months or years? Which things do I complain about the most and how do I feel after doing so? When I am about to voice a complaint, if I stop in time, what can I replace it with?
How much time do I spend dwelling on the same situations, on the ghosts of the past, thus feeding negative moods? How much time, on the other hand, do I spend rethinking positive things, cultivating a sense of gratitude toward God and others?
How much am I trying to find solutions and listen to the advice I receive? How much, on the other hand, does complaining keep me stuck in helplessness, victimhood, and a sense of injustice? (If in doubt, watch out for inner statements such as “Bad things all happen to me! There is nothing I can do about this situation…”). It might help us to meditate on the Words of the Father’s beloved Son: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be reproved by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and then be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
I might also ask, “Do I complain to everyone, without distinction?” Listening to someone complain requires a certain amount of commitment and energy: one feels invested with discontent, sadness, anger, discomfort. If it comes out of the occasional and becomes a habit, then the relationship tends to suffer and eventually wears out.
When, on the other hand, the goal is not complaining for its own sake, but we are simply expressing our emotions, albeit negative, we turn to loved ones who can understand us. Let us think of Jesus in Gethsemane: He was in the most painful moment of his life and asked the apostles to stay and pray with him. Then, however, he chooses three with whom he “began to feel sadness and anguish” and to whom he reveals, “My soul is sad unto death; stay here and watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38). Thus, choosing the “right” confidants is also a key step of good grievance.
Let us then ask the Lord for the grace to have a simple heart, willing to learn from Him the best way to share our most unpleasant suffering and feelings with God and others. Let us cultivate gratitude for the gifts He gives us each day and above all because we believe that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Whenever I am about to complain, I can stop for a moment, become aware of the person in front of me, and ask him or her if they would be willing to listen to me for a few minutes.
Every day, for every lament I have, I can try to find a reason for gratitude. For example: if I complain that I did not sleep well at night, I can thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to have a home and a bed to rest on.
This month’s meditation is by Sr. Simona Ciullo, AVI.