The older I get the more whining and kvetching (naggy, critical griping) I seem to find myself doing. One example: I need to cut down on my American news-watching, especially the political/financial reporting, because I spend too much time finger-pointing and barking at the TV. In the either/or world between strategic optimism or defensive pessimism, I generally tend to excel on defense.
It’s interesting to explore what goes on internally when I find myself reacting in this way. At the root of much of my reactivity often lies … fear. Fear that politicians are going to make the mess they’ve already made, worse. Fear that Wall Street – and specifically the big banks – are going to ruin any possible chance that I might have for a happy financial retirement. Fear that what lies ahead for me is mostly greater and greater pain, anxiety and suffering until I finally give up and die. The irony is not lost on me: while I’m so busy being driven by all of this Future-fear, I’m not very present to the glorious life around me in the moment. I blame it on my brain’s inability to easily manage anxiety, which of course, is simply more finger-pointing.
The High Costs of Kvetching
There are a number of things that make whining and kvetching less than optimal, both as a role model for kids, and for my own integrated brain development as well. In the parlance of economics, one might be lost opportunity cost. While I’m all too busy kvetching, it’s taking up way too much of my time, energy and attention. But the brain can only focus fully on one thing at a time. Just as it can’t fully attend to the road while driving and simultaneously eat and send text messages, it doesn’t easily allow me to talk attentively on the phone and simultaneously pay bills on line or give kids or kittens full attention. Because I’m so busy kvetching, as a result of this brain limitation, I’m not paying attention and fully focused on the constructive things I might be doing, like decoding the brain using light or practicing over-expressing the NR2B gene. (This is the lone gene which seems to inspire our brains to process more energy and information faster – which would make me much smarter, able to manage anxiety more effectively, and thus be less inclined to kvetch. What a double bind!).
The Kvetching Catch
But is kvetching all bad? Dr. Barbara Held believes you can kvetch your way to better health and she offers these five aspects (my interpretation) for the practice:
1. Safeguard your inalienable right to kvetch
2. Practice selective kvetching; honor the limits of your kvetchee
3. Don’t pseudo-kvetch – kvetch with gusto
4. Don’t practice kvetching one-upmanship
5. Praise the power of the practice of kvetching
As a defensive pessimist, I don’t particularly agree with Dr. Held’s premise, although I do subscribe to her main point: we need to be able to be honest with ourselves and others about what’s true in our experience, and then find effective avenues for expressing it.
Kvetching as a Call to Action
In my mind, kvetching is a conditioned response left over from childhood. I whined as a kid because whining preceded words. Kvetching also seems closely related to the Two Perilous Questions which have inspired many to spiritual maturity. Expressing dissatisfaction generally gives voice to momentary truths, answering the first question: What’s true for me? While it often misses the bigger picture – that in any moment of my life things are actually going quite well, and there’s very little to actually really fear – kvetching is a bit like winning the Nobel Peace Prize before you’ve actually done anything real to bring about peace. In the best of all possible worlds, it stands as a first alert and sets the stage for taking action required to address and resolve Perilous Question Number Two. Addressing this question – What do I want? – invites exploring a further and deeper truth, one that requires me to take action, often life-changing in ways big and small. It also often requires me to reconfigure my ordo amorum – rearranging the unfortunate human hierarchy of the things I love against the things I love most. Difficult choices that often require painful action. No wonder I’m so passively disinclined to make such changes until circumstances force me to.
In addition, kvetching often seems to trap me in a neurological loop, one that I deeply believe at some level is trying to move me towards greater healing integration. It often feels like I’m trapped in small, narrow, fear-generated thought-bubbles, which is what a traumatized brain normally does in the face of threat. The brain orchestrates these life-saving measures even with threats that aren’t particularly real, like in response to voices debating politics on my television screen. At which point, I can either turn off the television, or breathe my way back to a mindful awareness that “in this moment, everything’s all right.” Some day, brain willing, I might even be able to do both!