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Complaining Is a Necessary Part of Spiritual Life

This past summer, I slowly made my way through The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. For years, I’d heard it referred to as a great spiritual masterpiece, and as a book that transformed people’s lives. What I encountered instead seemed to be nothing but a series of scenes of people complaining.

Fyodor, the father, complains about everything. Among the sons, Dmitri complains about money and Ivan complains about the world’s suffering. Smerdyakov complains about his sorry state. Alyosha, who is a novice in a monastery, is in many ways the only likeable character, but even he grumbles on occasion. Even the holy Father Zosima, the book’s spiritual center, says that the more he loves mankind, “the less I love people in particular.” Yet all of these characters are somehow transformed or redeemed because of their complaints. Their spiritual journeys require them to move through their complaints and into different relationships with God and with one another.

I found the same narrative arc years ago when I fell in love with Chekhov through the play Uncle Vanya. Vanya complains, Astrov complains, Serebyakov complains, Yeliena complains. They are bored, restless, aging, and make one another miserable. It’s only the spiritually pure Sonja who doesn’t seem to complain, but then she too tumbles into a litany of complaints about being plain and unlovable. But it’s also Sonja who delivers the play’s closing monologue, a redemptive story about the rest we will earn when our suffering — and complaining — comes to its end.

Like many people raised in the Catholic Church, I needed a break from religion in my twenties. A top-down religion seemed antithetical to the joyfully diverse and politically progressive environment of the Bay Area, where I was born and raised. In my late 30s, however, after that break from the Church had dragged into two decades away from religion, I surprised myself by ending up back in a pew at my childhood parish.

Catholicism returned me to my spiritual home, but it also gave me plenty to complain about. Realizing I was headed for a spiritual train wreck unless I found a way to process the contradictions between my left-leaning politics and my faith, I decided to read the Bible carefully for the first time in my life, and wound up feeling a deep kinship with the Book of Job.

When I began to write about the Catholic Church as a journalist and essayist, my complaints were only amplified at an alarming rate. Sexism, homophobia, the abuse crisis, racially segregated church congregations, and a lack of communication between the hierarchy and laity were just the tip of the iceberg. Yet there was a deep sense that being Catholic, as the descendant of Irish immigrants, was both tribal and necessary for my spiritual health. I needed the big magic of the sacraments as counterweight to being ground down by life.

James Baldwin once said that, because he loved America so much, he insisted “on the right to criticize her perpetually,” and my feelings about the Church are much the same. Looking for consolation in the Bible, I found Job. We rarely hear from Job in the liturgical readings for the church year, and it’s a shame, because Job is the Bible’s great book of complaint.

When I was studying literature in college and graduate school, allusions to Job inevitably referred to Job’s patience. Yet the Job I met as an exhausted adult was hardly a model of patient piety. Instead, Job complains magnificently; even more surprisingly, Job complains directly to God. “I will not keep silent,” he tells God. “I will speak out of the anguish of my spirit. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

Job calls out God’s pettiness. Job rails against the world’s injustice, and Job lays that injustice at God’s feet. Job points to God’s unfairness toward him and says God has “made my life bitter.” Job even tells God to leave him alone. Reading Job in this way helped me understand that Job is ultimately liberated and his prosperity is restored, but only after his complaints. Job repents for his complaining when he understands that he is made “in dust and ashes,” but he cannot arrive at his repentance until he unleashes what he is rightfully upset about to God.

You can hear echoes of this throughout the Psalms as the Psalmists vent their own spleen, and later Jesus himself magnificently rails in complaint against the scribes and Pharisees. Hearing Jesus’ rage against hypocrites in Matthew 23 as an adult with a litany of issues with the world is like taking a long, cool drink of water. Even the messiah had things to complain about. Plenty of them.

Aside from Russian literature and the Bible, however, I find an outlet for my spiritual complaints in a group of friends. A decade ago, some older women from my former parish invited me to join their prayer group, but with a caveat: I had to come prepared to hear complaints. My friend Paula refers to it as “pray and bitch.” We pray together, and we complain together, usually about some issue in the Catholic Church.

One of these women is a theologian, and could preach most priests into dust, but she’s not allowed to preach in our church because she’s female. Another of them, Kathleen, was married to another woman, and, after struggling to find a place in Catholicism, she left the Church behind. Kathleen died suddenly earlier this year, and what I find myself missing about her is the sound of her complaints. A former addict, she’d suffered plenty in her life, and she’d complain operatically and then raucously laugh about it. Complaint was a form of release.

However, complaint can easily turn into a bad habit. As a teacher I am sometimes tempted to complain about my students, but then I recall overhearing a professor complaining about me in graduate school and remember how much it stung. In a time when stress and anxiety among college students is at an all-time high, it’s too easy to focus on cell phones in class or missing assignments rather than being present to the burdens my students — many of them first-generation Americans, undocumented, poor — have to deal with. A passing complaint with a colleague lets off steam and helps me move on from moments of frustration, but too many academics turn complaining about college students into a cottage industry of finger-wagging polemics.

And so it is with any complaining. Done in a group as a form of release, it can be healing. Done to God in prayer, it can lead to clarity. Done in literature, it can create characters we cleave to as readers, our literary kin. Done in excess, it can toxify an environment or lead to a habit of lording it over those much less powerful than we are.

Life gives us plenty to complain about every day. But I think of my friend’s laugh at the end of one of her complaints and remind myself that when we complain it’s the release we’re seeking, the unburdening of opening up, and the freedom that follows.

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