Rushing in where angels fear to tread, I recklessly announced at the beginning of Lent that I had decided to give up complaining as my Lenten sacrifice. So how’s that been working for you? you ask. Like the old footage of Orville and Wilbur trying to get their plane off the ground, I answer, and for pretty much the same reason – excess baggage.
At first things were going well. On the morning of Ash Wednesday I was actually congratulating myself that I had not yet uttered a complaint. Of course, it was 6 a.m., and I had not yet gotten out of bed, either. By about 7:30, the situation was deteriorating. I found that the outfit that I had been planning to wear to work wasn’t ready. “Great!” I mumbled sarcastically, and then deflated. My first Lenten complaint.
As the day progressed, I made a discouraging discovery – I complain when I’m frightened, I complain when I’m worried, I complain when I’m flustered, I complain when I’m out-of-sorts, I complain when I’m aggravated, and I complain about complaining. Interestingly enough, the biggest obstacle in my quest for a grumble-free existence has been to pinpoint exactly what constitutes grumbling. All my life I have just let it all hang out, as far as griping goes, and now I’m sorting through every thought that strays through my mind and every word that crosses my lips, trying to distinguish the good from the bad and the ugly. So far there’s been a lot more bad and ugly, it seems. But mostly I’m just confused by all the unaccustomed decision-making. What actually constitutes “complaining”?
- I go to get gas in an early March blizzard, and a woman makes small talk with the question, “So, how ya liking the snow?” I answer, “I’m freezing to death!”
Was that a complaint? Should I have said, “What a brisk and beautiful way to start a fantastic day!!”? Should I just have smiled and said, “I’m fine; how are you?” Should I have burst into a chorus of “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad!”??
- I’m late for work, and a car pulls out in front of me which appears to have serious engine problems, because there’s no other explanation for the speed at which he’s driving. Of course it’s a one-lane road, and of course it’s the day of our monthly meeting at work, so I kind of need to be there on time today. The car ahead of me is going 20 in a 35; he gets up to 25, but the excessive speed scares him, and he slows back down. “Why me??” I whisper in desperation.
Was that a complaint?
- The doctor asks me how I’m feeling. I tell him, “I feel lousy.” Well, it’s true. That’s why I’m at the doctor’s office, for Pete’s sake!
Is that complaining??
Words cannot convey to you how hard it’s been for me to think straight these past few days of Lent as I strive to assess every thought and emotion while simultaneously attempting to live and breathe. And that’s not a complaint.
One thing I have conveniently overlooked all my life is that telling the honest truth is not always a virtue. I have blurted out all kinds of complaints in the name of full disclosure, thinking that it is right, always and everywhere, to complain heartily as long as the sentiments expressed are true, as in “I can’t tell you how much I loathe giving up an hour of sleep because of Daylight Savings Time,” for example. That’s true. That’s also a complaint; no doubt about it. The Catholic Church is slowly but surely teaching me that it is right, always and everywhere, to give Him thanks, for Daylight Savings Time and for everything else that crosses my path, whether said occurrence happens to tickle my selfish little fancy or not.
Pretty much overwhelmed by all the insights and choices forced upon me by my Lenten sacrifice, I turned to the Sacrament of Penance, hoping to obtain the grace to abandon the ways of sin, specifically, the sin of Complaint. Fortunately, I have a very handy aid to confession, and used that to arm myself with a few apt descriptions of my failings. In the confessional I accused myself of ingratitude, of a lack of trust in God, and of a lack of humility (since I seem to think that I should have things my own way in all things). I also accused myself of spreading gloom (ouch). I abstained from confessing that I have pretty much raised sarcasm to an art form; I figured Father was getting my drift. He, for his part, graciously abstained from engaging in sarcasm of his own, like, “Well, it’s about time, Renée!“, simply asking me to make an Act of Contrition, which I did wholeheartedly. I came away from the experience with grace, hopefully enough grace to hold me till confession next Saturday afternoon. I am committed, by God’s grace, to change my lifelong habit of “stewing my life in the juice of my complaints,” as the Holy Father so aptly puts it.
So, I’m learning, and I’m changing. I’ve never been Little Mary Sunshine. I’m concerned that if I change too quickly, my kids may get creeped out like the poor Asian dry cleaning guy in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the one who whispers “That not my wife!” Kids, I’m still your mom; I’m just better now.
Like I said, creepy.
I’ve made it my project to commit to memory the Magnificat, a passage that I as a Protestant never bothered with. Each time I complain, I try to stop short and pray as much of Mary’s Song as I’ve memorized so far:
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
It is my hope that the God the Holy Spirit will work in my heart to make the Blessed Virgin’s sentiments my own. As St. Ambrose put it, “Let Mary’s soul be in us to glorify the Lord; let her spirit be in us that we may rejoice in God our Savior.” Amen. If you think of it, you might offer up a prayer for this, my intention.
I wrote this post to try to explain what not complaining is not. Not complaining is not… easy. And that’s not a complaint.
On the memorial of Bl. José Gabriel del Rosario Brochero
Deo omnis gloria!