Friday, August 14, 2009

The Complaint Free Life

Jaded New York intellectual that I am, I had happily ignored the hubbub swirling around Rick Warren's book: "The Purpose Driven Life."

And then one day in 2005 a convict named Brian Nichols overpowered a guard in an Atlanta courtroom and murdered three people. After fleeing the courthouse he also murdered a federal customs agent.

Finally, Nichols met up with a pretty blond South Carolina meth addict named Ashley Smith and took her hostage.

You know the rest of the story. Smith did not cower in fear. She did not even fight back. Instead, she read to Nichols from the book that was on her nightstand: "The Purpose Driven Life." Then she offered to pray with him. Eventually, she persuaded him to turn himself in. She was unharmed.

We might want to scoff at Pastor Warren, but clearly his words and his approach worked. In and of itself that should command our respect.

These were my first thoughts when I read Valerie Frankel's article about how she tried to follow the instructions contained in a book called: "A Complaint Free World" written by a Missouri pastor named Will Bowen. Link here.

In her article Frankel offers an amusing view of how her family tried for a week to learn the basics of a complaint free life. Frankel did not merely try to go cold-turkey on complaining, but she enlisted her husband and children in the enterprise.

At the end of a week, Frankel discovered that she could not break her bad habit of complaining, and that it was a good thing she couldn't because that was who she really was.

Trying not to complain made Frankel miserable, so she stopped. She concluded that a complaint free life was not for her. The experiment was a failure, and thus, the pastor's advice is not going to make you happy. It is going to alienate you from your true self, to say nothing of your friends and family.

However compelling Frankel's story, it does not prove the futility of trying to stop complaining. The more salient truth is that you cannot break a bad habit in a week. Under any circumstances, no matter who you are.

If you have spent your life badmouthing everyone and everything, you cannot just flick a switch and become the soul of kindness. Considering the amount of work you probably put into developing your skill at complaining and whining you cannot just shed it like some much dead skin. And considering that everyone you know expects you to complain, you cannot just stop doing it. Your friends will think you have lost your mind.

Given her expertise at complaining, Frankel has many complaints about Bowen's program. Among the worst: she had to repress her impulse to revel in the exchange of catty gossip. Apparently, such exchanges are legal tender among Frankel and her closest friends.

Once she stopped badmouthing people, Frankel felt like an alien being. The feeling was uncomfortable to the point of being painful. Saying nice things was wringing the fun out of her life.

Of course, this makes it sound like Bowen's book was tailor-made for Valerie Frankel.

Her complaints about her week-long experiment, however, are simply a description of the process that anyone would undergo while trying to replace a bad habit with a good one.

If an alcoholic tried to stay off alcohol for a few days, he might well say that he did not feel very good about the experience, that his friends no longer recognized him, and that he needed alcohol to put the fun back in his life.

If stopping addictive behavior felt good, a lot more people would do it. The greatest obstacles to overcoming addiction are that once you stop it: you do not feel normal; you will need to create a new circle of friends; and your life will feel like a lot less fun.

A few days ago, while blogging about Alan Lurie's article about complaining, I suggested that our therapy culture had helped us to perfect the art of complaining.

While Bowen and Lurie, among others, are fighting the good fight to help people overcome this insidious habit, Frankel represents the view of the therapy culture. Her article might have been called: The Empire Strikes Back.

Admittedly, card carrying members of the intelligentsia cannot take minister Bowen's ideas very seriously. And while it may be true that Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold tens of millions of copies, I can assure you that these copies have not been bought in the tonier precincts where the intellectual elites live and prosper.

And yet, as I like to remind myself, the most effective treatment for the scourge of alcoholism was not dreamed up by a great European psychoanalyst or philosopher. The twelve step program that is most likely to treat addiction was cobbled together by a couple of drunks in Akron, Ohio.

On that humbling word, I will close this post.

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