The poster dog for the New Cult of Empathy. He's listening.
The poster dog for the New Cult of Empathy. He’s listening.

I saw it again on Facebook today, yet another circular meme about how happiness can cure unhappiness. How could anyone have missed such an easy solution to life’s problems?

Here’s the problem: Sometimes things really suck. Sometimes things are profoundly difficult, and sometimes it’s because something is wrong with the world that can and should be fixed.

I see a lot of hostility to complainers. But the truth is that complainers are one of humanity’s greatest resources. No, I’m not talking about the person who puts himself in an uncomfortable position and never tries to improve his lot because, in fact, he prefers complaining and getting sympathy. I’m talking about the people who speak up about the boot on their neck, and at the same time note the boots on others’ necks as well. I’m talking about the people who are willing to pipe up and say “This sucks, it’s unfair, and we need to fix it. Here’s what I suggest.” It’s important to note, though, that those suggestions never simply rely on yet more negativity, or generalized animus toward persons with immutable characteristics like race or sex. Socially valuable complainers talk about behavior, not who people are.)

I am wary of our modern ethos of “positive thinking”, because although it has its benefits,  it can too easily become an enforcer of an unjust status quo, and verge into a cult of denial. But the fact is, no positive social progress has ever occurred without the complainers. Gandhi? A complainer. Dr. King? Complainer. And thank goodness they were complainers. Should we have told them to “choose happiness”? I don’t think so. Choosing happiness is often appropriate, especially in intractable circumstances. I am an enthusiastic co-signer of Victor Frankl’s teaching that the last thing that can be taken from a human being is her ability to determine her own attitude, whatever the circumstances.

But I think some complexity is being lost. Sometimes, a reflexive, unquestioning dogma about choosing to be “happy” doesn’t just mask bad stuff for us, it allows bad stuff to continue for others. Unacknowledged problems don’t get repaired. We’re way too fixated on eliminating negative feelings these days.

So I have a proposal. (See? I think complainers have a corresponding responsibility to suggest change.) Let’s replace our cult of positive thinking with a cult of empathy.

By this I mean: Choose happiness all you want on an individual basis — I get it, sometimes it takes a conscious choice to avoid resentment. But when someone else doesn’t or can’t, consider whether they might have a legitimate bitch about something. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what they’re struggling with. Are they right? Should things be the way they are? Do they have a point? Maybe they have one point but not another. Maybe the situation is more complex than the Facebook memes suggest.

I’ll just take a moment to observe that a lot of this positive thinking stuff seems to have reached a fever pitch in the era of worsening inequality, looming climate change, and 24/7 cable news. The cynic in me wonders if there is a connection.

We’d all be better off if we allowed some nuance into that positive thinking stuff, and added empathy to the mix. What are we afraid of? That we’ll be validating a society of whining? Because I don’t think that’s true. My experience has been that nothing shuts down complaints or whining like a little bit of genuine, non-coddling empathy. Not necessarily *sympathy* — but empathy, the effort to understand the life condition of the person with whom you’re interacting.

When people feel empowered to say “Excuse me, but you have your boot on my neck; please remove it forthwith”, there tends to be a lot less reactivity and nastiness. But a lot of us (and I’ll say it right now, I suspect a lot of us are women) are just terrified of getting slapped with the nag, whiner, complainer, or bitch label. And so we stuff it, and decide we’ll just try to be happy with someone’s boot on our neck. But here’s the thing. Even if the boot-wearer(s) refuse to take their boot from your neck, it’s a lot easier to be happy and content when you’ve spoken your truth about it. And if someone across the room actually hears you? It’s even easier.

So I’m resigning from the cult of denial, and I’ll be over here manufacturing Facebook posts about empathy. Feel free to join me. We have all the good food.


2 thoughts on “A modest proposal regarding the acceptance of complexity, or “Ode to the Complainers”

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