Rebirth of Reason

The Good Life

Cheese to go with that Whine?
by Elizabeth Kanabe

One of my (many) favorite scenes in Atlas Shrugged is the one where Dagny and Francisco are together, the summer she is fifteen. Dagny has recently realized that people dislike her because of her strengths. She jokes to Francisco, asking him, "Do you suppose I should try to get D's for a change and become the most popular girl in school?" Francisco responds by slapping her. After Dagny's shock (and mine) wore off, the action becomes a secret too precious to share.

Earlier, Francisco had told James Taggart, "James, you ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning."

There are two ways that others know who we are. The first is through our actions, and the second is through our communication with words.

As you read this, a great many people are engaged in small talk, complaining not about problems that arise and which require a solution or sympathy, but problems that are non-existent or don't warrant the time it takes to complain about them. As the conversation turns to jobs, or kids, or the hard work that they've put into a project, it's a cue to break out the whine.

Complaining for the sake of complaining with others does achieve several results. First, it will put you on common ground with those you are talking to, forming an instant bond. It will also get you empathy and support, even pity or praise, depending on what it is that you seek. You may even be successful in lowering others' expectations of you, or your own expectations of yourself. But what might be the price tag for these chats?

There are times when we complain and don't really mean it--and everyone knows it, with little damage done. When I call my VCR "stupid" for not working right away, I am not really upset at it. But when I used to complain that my schoolwork was just too hard to do or that our swim team workouts were just too much to handle, some other things happened without me realizing the effects. Others listened and joined in, and we kept going back and forth. Eventually, when I thought of schoolwork, "impossible" came to mind, and when I thought of going to my next swim practice, I thought of how hard it would be. Instead of seeing opportunities and challenges, I saw obstacles, obstacles put there by my own words.

It wasn't until I met people who always shot for the best grades that I saw it wasn't okay to say the work was simply too hard. It wasn't until a very motivated teammate yelled at me during a practice to stop looking at the time, and to start focusing on my sets, that I was able to look forward to practices. It took me twelve years to figure out that I could replace dread in practice and competition with excitement and anticipation that came easily.

Unless you realize that words do have specific meanings and associations, as Francisco warned James Taggart, they can be transferred into undesired beliefs and emotions. Think about the different images painted by the following two fathers. For our first example, take a father who is happy with his life and his kids, but complains about the little rugrats, how much they are costing him and how they are always running around making noise. He may love them, but he doesn't paint a great picture of his family for others, for himself, or the family members who will hear this. We hear it all the time so we may not even question such complaints, such whines.

But compare him now to the dads you've met who talk about their children with sparks in their eyes, who instead focus on telling you about little Jane's first ballet recital, the movie they all went to the night before, how great his children are and what joy they bring to him. His children cost just as much as the other father's children do, and probably make just as much noise around the house, but by focusing on the positive experiences he provides an opposing sense of life and an appreciation for his life.

Some can still argue that these "complaints" do not have a negative effect if you realize that they are just that. I can agree somewhat because I cannot recall the names of people who complain about their jobs and children and mortgage. But negative effects are not necessarily measured with respect to being no better or worse off than before, as is the case here. It can also be looked at as negative in terms of missed opportunity. While I can't recall the names of the complainers, as they get lost in the masses of people that I've met, I most certainly can recall the enthusiasts who speak of their lives with a passion.

I can name you the people who spoke so highly of their marriages that I still remember their statements, and see that such a thing is possible to achieve not only in stories but in real life. I can remember clearly my assistant coach describing his children with such admiration in his eyes that I wondered how others didn't think that way of their families too. It wasn't that others were so unhappy: it's that they lacked htis excitement and love for their lives to speak so highly of it. They preferred to make small talk, focusing on the negatives instead of appreciating their choices and their lives.

Since coming to this now seemingly simple realization a few years ago, I watch what I say (and how I choose to see things) carefully. When I speak of great things in my life, it's not that I don't have my share of problems: it's that I choose to focus on the great things instead. I am not sure if others see me differently now. I suspect they do, but most importantly I experience my life as I think it should be.

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