Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 21 July 2012 / 1 Av 5772


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Beth

Dear Rabbi,

I've been told that I'm "a complainer". Is there any advice as a rabbi that you can give me to improve this tendency? Thanks for your time.

Dear Beth,

Once a Jewish man was admitted to the hospital in an unconscious state. Until he came to, the hospital staff consulted his family regarding all his needs: kosher food, a minyan, regularly scheduled family visits – in short, all his needs were provided for. When his doctor later asked him if there was anything else they could do for him, he replied: "Yes, please move me to another hospital." Astounded, the doctor exclaimed: "But we've done everything possible for you!" "That's true" he replied, "But the problem is that here I have nothing to complain about!"

People in general and the Jewish People in particular, as recorded in the Torah, have a tendency to complain. In fact, I've heard it said facetiously that a Jew who doesn't complain is suspect that his ancestors were not at Sinai!

However, despite the fact that we are certainly discouraged from viewing the glass half-empty but rather encouraged to view it half-full, that doesn't mean that complaining, or at least the source of complaint, is always wrong.

Usually, at least on some level, a complaint expresses, albeit not always in the best way, a desire for improvement. Accordingly, if it's a Jewish thing to complain, that may be a result of an ingrained longing for a perfected world, which, according to Judaism, is the ultimate purpose of Creation. Similarly, a "complainer" is very likely a person who has higher aspirations for improvement. This can be a very good thing.

So if you have a tendency to complain, I wouldn't necessarily suggest improving it by removing it, but rather literally improving it – by improving the way you express your "complaints". Here's how:

First, make sure that it's really coming from a desire to improve and that there is something practical you can do to change the situation. If not, it's just a complaint and has little value other than to vent frustration, and most people don't want to be vented on. But if you find that your inclination to complain is genuinely to correct, then, rather than complain, express your desire for improvement in a positive and constructive way.

Rather than saying, for example, "I can't stand it when…", get used to saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if…." Or instead of saying, "Why do you always…" express it as "Perhaps we could try…." This type of communication is much more positive, expresses flexibility and, rather than voicing bitterness over the past or present, it instills hope for the future. That's what people want to, and should, hear.

In closing, a main way of determining whether your intention is to complain or to correct is to observe to whom it's directed. If it's always directed to others or to situations outside yourself, that needs correcting. But if it's also directed toward yourself, that's probably a sign that in general you're looking for improvement. Here too, though, your "complaint" to yourself should be expressed positively and constructively in order to avoid just venting frustration but rather to enable improvement. And when people see that you adopt this approach toward yourself as well, they will retract their complaint of your being a "complainer".

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