One recent morning I sat in a coffee shop doing some freelance work and half listening to two mothers who sat chatting in chairs beside me. One of the women did most of the talking, and she complained. A lot.
She complained about her schedule, about her kid’s teacher, about long emails and too-short spring breaks, about the cold, about her husband’s not taking her seriously when she said she wanted move to California.
The impish part of me wanted to interrupt and ask if anything good had ever happened to her, or at least in the last week. For crying out loud, here she was hanging out with a friend on a work morning, drinking hot coffee and wearing comfortable clothes while the red-eyed, suit-wearing masses lurched in and out around her, desperate for their morning fortification before a long day at the office.
But after a few minutes of listening I winced — yes, physically winced — as something very unpleasant occurred to me. How often have I been that person pouring out all my tales of woe, my insecurities, my frustrations and worries and fears into the ready ears of sympathetic girlfriends over similarly warm cups of coffee on pleasant days off? In fact, come to think of it, when was the last time I had a chance for a heart-to-heart that didn’t turn into an all-out Mabel Venting Session?
I can’t think of a single time.
Because, truth be told, I’m a world-class whiner. That might be too modest, actually. I wrote the book on whining. (The book itself was pretty negative and sales were weak, so I don’t talk much about it. But I digress.) I have a pretty amazing life when you look at it objectively, but somehow there’s always something to complain about. Negative feelings will crop up, and they must be given their day in public, mustn’t they?
When I’m not whining I’m backhandedly expressing my petty hurts over perceived slights and offenses. This acquaintance didn’t come to my dinner party last week, that roommate has been giving me the cold shoulder ever since I innocently remarked that she could clean her own dishes every once in a while, and my sister hasn’t called or texted me in weeks, which must mean she hates me. There’s always something to mutter about.
We strive so hard to avoid hurting one another’s feelings that we just end up being ugly. Instead of addressing issues head-on directly with the person who is causing us an issue, we “play nice” to their faces and then vent our frustrations in completely unproductive ways. Okay, I say “we.” Some people have learned the fine art of confrontation, but too often I still hide behind the mask of “niceness” because it avoids unpleasant discussions and emotions.
But when the mask comes off? It’s hideous. There was nothing attractive about that woman I overheard in the coffee shop. Indeed, I don’t even remember what she looked like because I was so distracted by the ugliness of everything she had to say. Yet she’s probably a lovely person, a good wife, mother, and friend, and I probably caught her in the middle of her purging session, when all the ugliness came out at once because she’d kept it bottled up for so long.
I have a long way to go, but that morning forced me to take a good look at myself, and to make a promise: to live honestly and speak openly with those who have to live with me, instead of bottling all my emotions and pretending nothing is wrong. I’m terrible at it, but maybe confrontation gets easier — or at least a little bit less terrifying — with practice?
If it doesn’t, don’t tell me. I may not have the stamina to keep it up. But I’m determined not to let long-held bitterness over trivial things make me ugly. That’s not what God made community for, even if the realities of Other People can drive you crazy sometimes.