I have newfound respect for the marvelous power of complaining after an instructive experience in which I feel blessed and instructed by the hand of the Lord. Or call it dumb luck, if you will, for I was certainly lucky and somewhat stupid. I hope my experiences might help some of you in dealing with your frustrations, including those you may have with the Church or its leaders.
I’ve set a goal recently to not complain about my work situation. Honestly, I have a wonderful job with opportunities, fun, and visibility beyond anything I’ve experienced before. They treat me well and I have so much to be grateful for, including a spectacularly beautiful headquarters in one of Shanghai’s nicest and most convenient locations (the Shanghai Arch in Hongqiao) where I have an office on the top (32nd) floor with a view of Shanghai that is so beautiful it is often distracting. And it’s just a 16 minute walk or 8 minute bike-ride from home. What a dream! But as with almost all jobs in real life, and almost all mortal organizations, there are some frustrations.
Some of those issues arise from the large cultural differences between the West and the East. The way a large corporation works in Wisconsin, for example, can be radically different from the way an Asian company operates. Business in China can sometimes be remarkably efficient, rapid, and flexible, much more than what is normal in the West, but in some situations it’s more complicated. Learning to deal with these differences can be tough for foreigners, myself included.
Recently, while dealing with a complicated, frustrating issue on Topic X, I had a surprise email from an acquaintance from France who happened to be an expert on Topic X. He was in town that day and wanted to know if he could come by and visit me at work to discuss his business and their services. I knew I wouldn’t have time, but did want to see him, so after checking with my wife, asked if he would like to join us for dinner. He accepted, and we had a fun Thai meal (one of the numerous great places to eat at the Shanghai Arch).
As we were helping him find a taxi afterwards, Topic X came up, and having a sympathetic ear who would understand my frustrations, I stupidly abandoned my goal to shun complaining and shared my rather whiny story as I expressed multiple frustrations. As I did so, I increasingly dwelt on those frustrations and began to feel irritated and unhappy with my situation. I went from hope to anger. When I returned home, I dwelled on my complaints as I pondered my job and felt increasingly discouraged. In fact, I think I felt something approaching depression. I was surprised at how fatigued I felt, how sapped and unhappy, and how I didn’t want to eat, drink, or do anything except just crawl into a cave. My body and psyche felt drained.
For those who struggle with real depression, I apologize for using that word to describe my simple, momentary state, and recognize that the burdens you face are much more real and consuming that my little trouble. At the same time, the way some have described their symptoms to me resonated with what I was feeling, as if I were having the tiniest taste of what many live with every day due to deep-rooted physiological and other factors beyond my comprehension, but which are as real as a broken leg is, not something to just be shaken off easily. I was truly surprised at just how bad and hopeless I felt for a while. But for me, it was something I would be able to shake off, unlike the real health problems many face.
I went to sleep with a prayer for help, still surprised and curious at how I felt both emotionally and physically. I think I was experiencing the magical power of complaining. This is dark magic with innumerable spells that anyone can utter, spells that can turn day into night, joy into sorrow, blessings into curses, and good food into bad.
I awoke that Saturday morning feeling a little better but still with a prayer in my heart for power to drop that shroud of darkness from soul that was still there. As I prayed, I remembered some of the last words my European friend had said before he got into the taxi. He mentioned the way his company handles one aspect of Topic X, and now I suddenly realized he had given me a key, a best practice I could explain to management that would give us a chance to revisit my main frustration on Topic X and find a better resolution. I came up with plan, made a call to my boss, and began a conversation that would result in a compromise approach that removed one of my major pain points and greatly improved the situation that had tempted me to complain so much.
The mysterious European who showed up out of the blue came at exactly the right time to help me in several ways. He had come on the very day that a new burden was given to me that could be painful and ugly. Through my interactions him, including my personal failure, I would better recognize the dangers of dwelling on my frustrations. I would better understand the potent power of complaining to change how I feel and how I see things. But he also helped me directly in one of the most important work-related matters of my four years here in China. Out of the blue, a blessing, tailored for my needs. Thanks to the information he gave me and the help of the Lord in seeing things from a different angle, I was able not only to go from despair to hope, but also to make a big improvement in a matter of great importance to me. And I learned to think twice before chanting any of the endless spells from the dark magic of complaining.
We all have plenty to complain about, whether it’s our work, our spouse, our family, our church, our friends, or those around us. But beware how the act of complaining can reinforce our focus on the worst, while making the good things around us seem invisible or irrelevant. When it comes to the good that can be so easily shrouded, no cloak of invisibility is so broad and rapid as the magic of complaining.
There’s a reason why the Lord says “in patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). Faith, hope, charity, and especially patience are the shields to complaining’s potent power.
I think this is also why the Lord warns us against “speaking evil” of our Church leaders, even though we all know they are mortals capable of numerous human errors. There can be plenty to complain about in some cases, but we are asked to patiently support them and seek to help, not to mock or tear down with our complaints. To dwell on those errors and complain vocally about it can dramatically change how we see the Church and how we feel about it, obscuring the good and magnifying the flaws. Be patient and charitable in what you say to others. It can be a healthy way to handle our frustrations.