Who among us hasn't carved moments out of our lives to moan . . . and . . . groan. "If that kid of mine doesn't clean her room, I'm going to bust a gut!" "Can you believe the prices on this menu?" "What in heaven's name do I need to do to lose some weight?" Complaining seems to be part of the human condition, what happens between inhaling and exhaling. 

The challenge, perhaps, is to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, to draw a line between life's trivial annoyances and things that matter, things that are really worth complaining and doing something about. The poet Maya Angelou said, "What you're supposed to do when you don't like a thing is change it. If you can't change it, change the way you think about it. Don't complain." Complaining, it seems, comes down to perspective, which is what we hear from Gale Eaton.  

Before her retirement, Wakefield, Rhode Island resident Gale Eaton taught at and directed the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island.


“So how’s it going with you?” I ask, and she says, “Well, I can’t complain.”

And that puts me in my place, doesn’t it? In the past minute I must have complained about at least three different things. Like, cold noses. Static electricity in winter hair. The pothole at the bottom of the street, the one that makes my suspension sound like a Depression-era baby carriage.

When she says, “I can’t complain,” is she valiant? Or pathetic?

“Give it a try,” I suggest. “All it takes is a bit of imagination.”

Because I believe complaint is an art form, and as such, it’s one of the glues that holds society together. When we complain we’re saying, "Don't worry – I don't have it all over you, my life isn't perfect, I'm just muddling through like everyone else. We’re in this together." We complain to elicit fellow feeling and to demonstrate it. And a clever complaint provokes shared laughter, distracting us from our troubles. Stand-up comics deal in complaint.

We tend not to complain about tragedies, but about inconveniences. Potholes are good to complain about, assuming you have roads. Nursing home cooking, assuming you have enough to eat.

Complaint, like anecdote, is a good way to keep conversations flowing and easy connections alive without getting too close for comfort. A good line of complaint is about itching, not agony; it eases the existential loneliness of life but doesn’t force us to look at our most appalling common wounds. The essential shallowness of complaint makes it a handy tool for jury-rigging a reasonably resilient society.

Plus, it's fun.

When my acquaintance claims she can't complain, she may just be boasting that she's not one of those egocentric types who recite ad nauseam the injuries life has dealt them. Well, good, I guess. But if she really can't complain, I worry that either she lacks imagination or she's in the throes of a real tragedy. Because when life's going on as normal, we can all complain.

And I believe we should all do it, with humor and compassion, to the very best of our ability.