Most of us imbued in American capitalism live in a culture where action is prioritized over thought, and where rumination is often confused for thinking something through. The belief that thought in itself is not a type of action and engagement is an unfortunate split in our culture, which can take its toll on our creative processes.
Complaint in itself can be a radical act. Complaining can call attention to something that is being ignored or overlooked and therefore not being thought about. I consider complaining a kind of pre-thought: Something that happens when a person is no longer in the complete symbiosis state (symbiosis would be like the partner who finishes your sentences), or when symbiosis is interrupted but can’t be thought about or understood yet (like when that same partner disagrees with you and interrupts that sameness-flow with a difference of opinion). Complaining serves as a way to express a problem and request help thinking about this problem with another mind.
Complaining is not necessarily about solutions; it’s often about taking yourself seriously and learning how to listen to yourself. It’s also a process of requesting others listen to, and oftentimes validate, you.
Unfortunately, complaint is often met with disdain by others, and considered to be irritating, self-centered, and problematic. Don’t rock the boat, and certainly don’t complain, the message goes, unless you’re prepared to do something about it other than simply say it aloud. This action-oriented rhetoric implies that action can only happen one way- essentially, it implies that thinking and talking isn’t action- and can often be damaging to a creative process which much of the time involves calling attention to something that feels “off” by speaking one’s thoughts around the experience. The creativity lies in the capacity to think about alternatives to whatever it is that feels “off”, and to recognize your own opinions in the process.
What are we so afraid of about complaint that we would interrupt our thinking process to implore immediate action upon ourselves or other people? Is complaint an irritant in our shoe that we want to get rid of immediately? Perhaps we are so afraid of shame, helplessness, or not-knowing that we would aggressively force ourselves to interrupt a flow of thinking that calls attention to your own mind, which is just starting to take shape around a thought waiting to be thought between two people.
Sometimes, when someone complains to me about something happening in their lives, that complaint may be followed up with: “But what’s the point of talking about any of this? Talking isn’t going to change anything!” This seems to me like the person is cutting off of the flow of their own thoughts, mid-complaint, because those thoughts elicit a feeling of stuck-ness. The stuck-ness is so terrifying, and the call to action so compelling, that the person ends up derailing what might otherwise be a fruitful and creative exploration into what is, and isn’t, working in their life. It can sometimes be embarrassing, or shocking, to hear yourself say something that you’ve been thinking for a while but have never said out loud. It can feel uncomfortable to begin the process of thinking, in front of and with another person, something you’ve known but have not really thought through before. Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls this the “unthought known”: Something that you know deep inside you but have never allowed yourself to really think about.
Complaining can be a way to allow those knowns to be thought about between two (or more) people, especially if those involved can support thinking and not prioritize immediate change before the problem and all the feelings around the problem are explored enough.
(Sara Ahmed has written and is researching complaint, though in a structural sense rather than an individual psychological perspective, from a feminist lens. Check out her work here.)
In my experience, once the complaint can be thought about, it can be used to help someone assess their difficulties and discover their own agency in engaging in the dilemmas of their life. Complaining is not a throw-away, though many of us - complainers included - view it as such. Complaint must be taken seriously in order for someone to, as the saying goes, “change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference”- and, as Angela Davis adds, to help someone “[change] the things I cannot accept.”