So now you know my secret. The blogpost I was scared to write has been sitting out there for a week now staring back at me, arms crossed, silently defying me to recant my YOLU vow – a year of living uncomplainingly.

My friend Pam tells me that “yolu” is Turkish for road, and this is not one I’m sure I want to take. It’s not well marked and I suspect the tolls collected will be steep. Way easier to take the fast freeway of speech unencumbered by watchfulness.

I’m a week into this discipline, and it’s making me think if nothing else. Just as I’m trying to choose my meals mindfully this year, I’m trying to eat my words as well. But the tricky part of this particular linguistic diet is figuring out what’s allowed and what’s verboten. It’s easier to identify what complaining is not than what it actually is.

  • You’re not complaining when you validate a truth that happens to be difficult. People all around us are navigating turbulent waters. We do them a disservice when we downgrade their personal hurricanes to the status of tropical storms or worse, pretend it’s actually fair weather when they know it’s foul.
  • You’re not complaining when you register a legitimate protest. Women and men who are victims of abuse, workplace discrimination, deceptive business practices or a host of other ills have every right to speak up.
  • You’re not complaining when you recognize a wrong that needs to be rectified. Scripture commands us to be concerned with issues of social justice. “Spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Is. 58:10).

So then, why does our English word complaint have such a negative vibe, conjuring up expressions of discontent, censure and resentment, lament and faultfinding?

I decided to poll my husband and son over dinner this evening. Forking waffles from the hot iron onto their plates, I put the question to them. I consider both Mike and Jordan pretty experienced in this subject. Jordan has worked in customer service and Mike – well, you know what he does.

“Lamenting our losses is legitimate,” Mike commented, “but it strikes me that complaining is counterproductive when it becomes focused solely on self: my needs, my problems, my wants. When we turn inward we forget that others are hurting too.”

Jordan added, “Complaining is attention-seeking. Looking for pity is a cheap way to get attention, because you want someone to feel sorry for you, and when you complain maybe you can guilt them into it. It’s funny but I think Facebook has changed the way we complain. We sort of put it out there and look for others to ‘like’ our misery.”

When Jordan speaks, I listen, because he was never one to complain even as a kid. And as I drove to my after-dinner meeting, I mulled over his and Mike’s words. Is that what the Apostle Paul meant when he cautioned the Philippians about complaining, or was he issuing a larger warning to the entire community?

We’ll continue this conversation in a future post.