Practices of Gratitude – The Complaints Department

There really is no finer employment for a teenager than working in a movie theatre. It’s merits are incomparable in the world of first jobs. I blame my own experience in this role for giving me the opportunity to hone my gift of sarcasm. The IMAX theatre at which I endured one long summer was located in a theme park where people were getting ripped off and usually were discovering this fact at about the time they found themselves in line for a show. It was a baptism by fire in the world of complaints. Most of them were entirely legitimate complaints – these people deserved better than to be taken advantage of by a dying tourist attraction.

Perhaps it was a premonition of the world I would later inhabit as a therapist.

People come in with complaints – they’re supposed to! Most of their dissatisfactions with life are quite realistic. To be mostly honest I have no interest in telling people to stop this behaviour. And this post is not about encouraging anyone to stop complaining as much as it is about learning something important from our spoken and unspoken expressions of dissatisfaction.

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Because complaints are an interesting source of information about us as people. Underneath our complaints about our lives, our selves, each other, the weather… are a set of assumptions about what we think we deserve and how the world should be.

So try these questions on for size:

What do you deserve in life?

How do you know what you deserve, or what others deserve?

Do you get what you deserve, or do others?

I find these questions easier to answer when I’ve looked back at the complaints I’ve made in a day. But my reflections on complaints also make me aware of just how entitled I can be about life in often subtle and socially acceptable ways. I easily slip into patterns of expecting things to work out, go my way, or fall into place. I can be ugly (at least on the inside) when inconvenience, failure, or suffering come my way because I seem to assume that those things are for others to have, but not me.

Entitlement, taking the form of an expectation that life should be good and not hard or painful is woven into the fabric of our consumerist society. I think one of the major barriers to gratitude in my own life, and I suspect others, is the cultural norms and beliefs in our culture about what the good life is like and who deserves it.

If you deserve something, why would you be grateful for it? If it’s something that already belongs to you or should be given to you, than there’s no need to be thankful. If we deserve – if the world owes us certain things, than we shouldn’t really have to be appreciative of them. Saying thanks in this case is merely just being polite to appease a social convention, not actual gratitude.

It’s easy to throw stones on this topic. My generation likes to moan and complain about the entitlement of millenials. The generations before me used to do the same thing when we were younger. And maybe certain kinds of people are truly becoming increasingly entitled by virtue of multiple generations of prosperity warping our sense of reality. But I find finger pointing an increasingly absurd exercise as I become more and more familiar with my own brokenness.

I’ve discovered that a lot of times when I’m complaining about things, it’s because I believe I deserve better. Complaints are a window into how we think things should go for us and how the world should treat us. And of course sometimes it’s perfectly legitimate and even a good thing. If I’m angry and complaining about someone who is truly mistreating me, that complaint is an affirmation of my inherent value and human right not to be abused.

But just maybe some of you are little bit like me, and when our complaints reveal our assumptions about what we think we deserve, it reveals some expectations that are perhaps not entirely embedded in the declaration of human rights. And, perhaps these expectations make gratitude a hard space to get to in our hearts and minds.

Here’s a completely un-embarrasing list of things that I never complain about but I’m sure other people do…

1) The weather – I deserve a stretch of perfect summer days when I have vacation planned.

2) Having the stomach flu or any other health problem – This is for other people to have, I should be able to rely on perfectly good health on a daily basis

3) The burden of being ridiculously good looking – why must I put up with the constant staring and gawking?

4) Home renovation projects that do not go off as intended, including screws, lighting fixtures, and pieces of wood that deliberately attempt to defy me (and the laws of physics) by being difficult.

5) Bad luck – missing the bus, buying the box of crackers that’s already stale, having keys fall out of my pocket in a dark field, that stationary post that suddenly appeared and hit my car in the parking lot…

But here’s one of the most freeing and yet challenging things I’ve ever been struck by: 

I don’t deserve either the good or the bad in my life.

I don’t deserve that health problem, but I also didn’t deserve to be born in Canada instead of Fallujah.

I don’t deserve the genetic predisposition towards premature baldness, but I also didn’t deserve to inherit the intelligence of my parents. We don’t deserve mental illness or mental wellbeing. Happiness and sorrow, pain and joy, contentment and anxiety  – these are neither our accomplishments nor our failures and the universe doesn’t owe any of them to us.

We are undeserving. And when we recognize this truth, and take a soak in it, there’s a lot more room in our consciousness for recognizing the gifts we have in our lives.

Maybe it’s even possible that when we recognize that we are surrounded by gifts, we will be transformed by gratitude in ways that empower us to challenge the unfair distribution of suffering and blessings in the world.

So here’s this week’s gratitude practice in a nutshell: Go to the complaints department in your own head and listen to the things you are dissatisfied about. Some of them are completely valid and reasonable. But behind some of them you might find some entitlement or a sense that you deserve things to be certain way. If you have the courage, question that assumption that your birthright should carry with it a life of health, wealth, and happiness – that things should go your way even most of the time. Wonder aloud if some of those things you feel entitled to are actually gifts. Don’t force your heart to be thankful, just invite it to be by re-examining the assumptions that you deserve all the ridiculous good fortune in your world.

As summer jobs go, my work at the movie theatre some 20 years ago wouldn’t readily be considered a blessing. But someone took a chance on me – a previously unemployed student with little to claim as qualifications. I don’t recall if I felt entitled to it at the time, but as I reflect on it tonight, I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given to experience a little square of the universe where people complained and threw up from the motion sickness those pretty little IMAX films were so good at inducing. A place where I developed compassion (and sarcasm) and learned lessons that sowed seeds of gratitude.


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