So I just finished complaining to my husband because our house is hot and stinky, I’m tired and spent an hour cleaning up pre-schooler poop this afternoon. Reasonable complaints I think. But then I sit down to look at St. Benedict, which we are reading together in our reading group,
First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all.
He goes on to say,
If, however, anyone is caught grumbling, let him undergo more severe discipline.
Seriously, Benedict? I mean really are you setting the standard at no complaining . . . none at all? And really severe punishment, for just for a few grumbling words?
Benedict has a way of pulling the rug out from under me. I’ll feel like I’m doing alright with life (I mean I’m not setting the bar all that high, but no one is getting hurt, we are all fed and bathed and dressed at least) and then I sit down and read something like this. Now true, this is a rule of life written 1,500 years ago for monks, totally different from my life. But it gets me thinking.
Were my complaining words a benefit to anyone? Certainly it didn’t help my husband, he knows the house is stinky and hot, he is inside of it just like me, and he is grateful that I cleaned up the poop and would be glad if I turned in early and caught up on some rest. My whining hasn’t changed anything in our relationship except to make me seem like a bit more like a whiner (I’ll admit, I’m a whiner by nature, most people probably break the habit by middle-school, but not me). And though I was able to blow off some steam, my complaints haven’t brought me anywhere closer to contentment, instead I have reinforced for myself how miserable I am.
I think of my daughter, who just went to bed early after skipping her nap this afternoon (because instead of sleeping she smeared poop all over her clothes. In her defense she was trying to clean it up, but still, it resulted in a big mess). She was tried and grumpy at dinner and sat at the table complaining because she couldn’t get her rice on her fork and she didn’t like carrots. And though I was stern in correcting her for her grumbling I am realizing, a lot of what I say are complaints too. I am beginning to wonder how I have the nerve to correct her for her bad attitude when mine isn’t any better, let’s face it, mine is worse. Where she can figure out a way to have fun in almost any situation, I can find a way to mope and pout until not only is everyone aware that I am miserable but those around me can’t help but be sucked in.
So maybe Benedict is on to something, maybe there is a bit of evil in grumbling. I wonder what life would look like if I really made myself stop? If I really decided enough was enough and every time a complaint was on my lips I zipped them closed. I know I wouldn’t mind if my husband and daughter decided to take up that practice. So why shouldn’t I do the same (not that I’m actually making plans to do that, still feels like a bit of a stretch at the moment)?
As for punishment, I’m glad that I’m not in one of Benedict’s monasteries. I’m sure they would have worn me out already with correction. But I am beginning to see that there may be some reason behind Benedict’s harsh statement. After all at least the punishment lets the perpetrator know they did something wrong and gives them a chance to correct it. In my situation I have no one to confess to, and no one to insist I maintain any standard of good behavior (my husband knows better than to tell me to stop complaining at this point). So instead I’m allowed to wallow in my own misery and share it with the people around me. No one is looking out for me or pointing out that all my complaining is getting me no where and that instead it is actually working against me, making my life harder, robbing me of the joy I could be experiencing. I suppose Benedict’s approach isn’t much different than me expecting that disciplining my daughter for a bad attitude will help her to have a better one in the future.
Looking back through this section I notice another interesting phrase that precedes this line about grumbling. Benedict gets to the part about complaining after explaining that the monastery should be sure to distribute goods so that everyone has his needs met.
By this we do not imply that there should be favoritism-God forbid-but rather consideration for weakness. Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness show to him.
Benedict’s words seem to flip my American values upside down. What if instead of looking at the millionaire on the hill with envy I saw wealth as weakness, the wealthy as those who needed more to survive? “Oh poor guy, he needs to have that big house to make himself feel safe, he just can’t seem to make it with less.” And what if those of us struggling to make ends meet thanked God that we are able to live with less instead of wishing we had more. Now I’m not trying to make an idol of poverty. Certainly much of the poverty around the world is due to laziness while much more is due to tragedy and exploitation. I don’t think we should strive for poverty. But what if in my prayers I asked God to teach me to be content in my hot stinky house while I’m tired and cleaning up poop? What if my desire was to be content with what I had instead of asking for something more?
The truth is God knows what I have. He knows the miserable suffering and brokenness of the hearts of those of us in mansions and those of us barely making it. He loves us, and if the rest of the race is anything like myself, the truth is, we act like we don’t care, we are all still complaining. Now look, I’m a complainer (I’m guessing you’ve gathered that already) so I’m not judging you for doing the same, and I guess Benedict isn’t judging us either, but he is warning us. He does take the matter pretty seriously and maybe it is because he wants what is best for us. He wants his readers to experience an abundant life serving the God that loves them. And he knows that complaining isn’t getting us anywhere.