We all say it. Can’t complain. It’s not quite as disingenuous as ‘Oh, good, everything’s great’, but it’s not exactly the truth, is it? It’s the ‘I’m fine’ of conversations, the way we stop ourselves when we almost – almost – come right out and say that maybe we aren’t okay. That maybe work isn’t going so great, or home, or maybe we’re just tired, and need a hug and our pjs and a family-size bag of M&Ms (other brands are also available). But we don’t want to whinge. Whinge – what an awful word, all full of nasty connotations of spoilt children and whininess. We don’t want to be that person, the one who always seems to need an ear, who always seems to find the dark lining in the silver cloud. Chin up, soldier on, and all that.
We don’t even need to be British to suffer stiff upper lip syndrome.
I’ve come to see ‘can’t complain’ as something rather similar to ‘clear your plate. There’s children starving in Africa, you know!’ Wait – I should over-eat because someone, somewhere in the world, is starving? How does that help them? Isn’t it worse that I do overeat? That seems to rub it in more, I’d have thought – here I am unfastening my top button, while you’re hoping for a handful of rice.
All of which isn’t to belittle the problem of the approximately one in nine people that don’t have enough to eat. But there are better ways to help than feeling guilty over not clearing your plate.
And can’t complain – I can, actually. Yes, there are people who are far, far worse off than me. Yes, my problems are ‘first world problems’ – another phrase I find pretty distasteful – but they’re still problems. It seems to me that ‘can’t complain’ is designed specifically to belittle the difficulties each of us face, and while I have no doubt that it’s meant well, meant to remind us that there are bigger issues than the water heater breaking or the car not starting, or the cat shedding on your for-best work interview top – they’re still problems. They impact us, and they matter.
Watching someone struggling to articulate the difficulties they’re facing, then turning around and forcing a smile to say, “but I can’t really complain” – it smacks of this culture we’ve created, where we celebrate drama yet condemn it, all at once. Drama’s okay if it’s of the hair-pulling, table-flipping, screaming, reality TV variety, that we can watch and revel vicariously in. It’s not okay if it’s real, if it’s of the everyday, the passage of days and weeks that wear you down between work and home and the thousand things that must be done for your world to keep moving around you, bills to pay and shopping to do and meals to make and places to go, and it’s good, it’s great because really, you have so much to be thankful for, you really are lucky, you can’t complain…
Only we’re human, each and every one of us. And life’s hard. It is. It’s wonderful and beautiful, but it’s hard, too. We’re all making it up as we go along, figuring out how to make it work, and being a grown-up is super-hard. Some days suck. And we need to let them. Because we may not be starving, we may not be physically or mentally or emotionally ill, we may not be broke, we may not be homeless, we may have relationships that sustain us – but we’re human. We hurt. Things get to us. We have bad days. Sometimes we want to walk away from all this adulting and just give up. But, for the most part, we pick ourselves up, and give the next day a go, and say, me? Can’t complain.
But here’s the thing – we can. And sometimes it’s good to. There’s nothing wrong with a bad day once in a while – our culture would have us believe that good people never have bad days, but we all do. Maybe there’ll be an external factor you can point to – a favourite mug got broken, or the cat bit the neighbour’s dog and now you have to pay their vet bills – but sometimes there won’t. We’ll be a little down without knowing why, a little sad, a little angry, a little dissatisfied and restless.
And do you know what? That’s perfectly alright. Don’t push it down and stick an I’m okay on top of it. You don’t have to always be okay. Maybe you have someone who’ll listen. Maybe you tell it to the cat (she owes you that much at least, after the vet bill). Maybe you put your pjs on and eat your M&Ms (other brands are also available), or maybe you drink your bottle of wine and say screw it to the bad head the next morning. But you can complain. You should. And then it’s out there, in the world, and the next day you get up and start again, and you feel better for it, because I’ll tell you – all those I’m okays get pretty heavy after a while. It’s good to put them down.
So yeah – you can complain. Consider this your permission slip to not be okay sometimes. Consider this your invitation to have a rant and a complain and maybe even – heaven forbid – a whinge.
None of us are okay all the time. That’s why they invented M&M’s (other brands are also available).