Christopher Hitchens once said of Ayn Rand’s writing, “the novels are transcendently awful. . . I have some respect for the Virtue of Selfishness, but. . . I don’t think there is a need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings. . . some things require no further reinforcement.”
So it is with kvetching. We all do it, if not all the time, then a lot, without any encouragement. While kvetching is one of those things that requires no reinforcement, it does need a little defending in this age of Perpetual Positivity. It gets a bad rap these days when we’re told to turn lemons into lemonade, count our blessing, practice gratitude. Complaining is relegated to the corner and told to pipe down. While kvetching is not our most noble attribute, it is very human, and it has its virtues and benefits in preserving our humanity and psychological well-being. And very unlike selfishness, and Ayn Rand’s unkind cult of Objectivism, kvetching does demonstrate empathy, and fortifies the bonds between people. It is also necessary for psychological catharsis.
The definition of kvetch, from the Yiddish kvetshn, meaning to squeeze, pinch or press, in modern American parlance means to complain or whine incessantly about minor things. Taken more broadly, I think of it as the everyday complaining over issues both large and small that we all engage in almost unconsciously. It’s the itch we have to scratch, the boil we have to lance, the thing we have to get off our chest.
Likely not the correct etymological interpretation, still I picture a lemon being squeezed or pressed by frustrated hands to wring the sourness from a situation, to extract and remove it. Like juice from the lemon, sourness is purged from the spirit through kvetching.
While meditation is a valuable tool for letting go of negative thoughts and impulses, sometimes the insular nature of sitting and exercising the mind does not quite soothe the itch. Sometimes soothing the itch requires help from another person to reach the itchy spot. The presence of an empathetic ear for a few minutes can be more relieving than an hour on the meditation cushion.
In this sense, complaining is like secular confession; something that has to be spoken aloud, not whispered in prayer. Try as I may, I could not find an etymological connection between catharsis (Greek, katharsis, to purge, to cleanse) and kvetch (Yiddish, kvetshn, to press, to squeeze) but I still think of kvetching as a kind of catharsis, as confession in the Catholic Church is a kind of cleansing and catharsis. The one difference is that while confession is about things you’ve done, complaining is usually about things done to you. An interesting aside that the vegan in me feels compelled to mention, the Cathars, that thirteenth century rebel sect (whose name, meaning “the pure,” also derives from the Greek katharsis) believed taking any life was a sin and therefore did not eat animals.
Without going into a technical extrapolation of the psychological benefits of confession or kvetching, we can all relate to how good it feels to get something off your chest, whether it is to a priest, a therapist, or friend. We can also relate to how terrible it feels to keep something bottled up, when deep breathing, mantras, and positive visualization just won’t do. Remember that Seinfeld episode? “Serenity Now. . . insanity later!”
Besides being psychologically purging for you, complaining to a friend can be helpful to the friend. How many times have you unloaded your complaints on a friend to have them respond, “I’m so glad we talked. I feel so much better. I thought it was just me!” While sharing your insights on yoga, meditation, and healthy food choices, might inspire others, it is your willingness to share your human vulnerabilities that creates those bonds of empathy so essential to spiritual and mental health. Don’t you find that when you have something to kvetch about, your friends have their own tales of woe to tell? By complaining to someone you give them permission to do the same, to purge something toxic of their own. And vice versa; once someone starts complaining, you can immediately relate and become willing to share your own similar experiences.
So, the benefits of kvetching are clear, but is it virtuous?
Does kvetching meet the Buddhist standards of Right Speech?
One of the tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, including also Right View, Right Resolve, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, Right Speech describes the Buddhist principles governing how we communicate with one another. It is usually expressed as four abstentions, not things to do, but rather things not to do. The four abstentions of Right Speech are abstaining from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter.
So let’s walk complaining through these four filters of virtue and see if it passes Buddhist muster. Lying: this is the easiest test to pass. Kvetching is, by its nature, honest. No one invents things to complain about. There’s always plenty of all-too-real stuff to cause us unhappiness and dissatisfaction. In fact, I think Complaining’s Pollyanna twin, Positive Outlook, is more likely to fail this Right Speech test. She shows up every time someone asks us how we’re doing and we say “Great!” when we are not. Not complaining when one is suffering is more of a lie and a violation of Right Speech than saying “it’s all ok.”
One needs to tread more carefully when it comes to divisive and abusive speech. It is as easy to complain about other people as it is to complain about situations. We often perceive that other people hurt us, fail us, rub us the wrong way. In complaining about one person to another it is tempting to set the offending person up as the antagonist, to say mean things about them that might cause others to ostracize them. Still, complaining isn’t necessarily abusive or divisive. It just needs to be wielded with some care, so as not to veer off the Nobel Path and cause one to become the jerk in one’s own narrative.
Finally, idle chatter: Idle chatter implies speech that serves no purpose. But, as I’ve argued, kvetching does serve both the purposes of psychological catharsis and social bonding. Again, there is a caveat here though. One has to know when enough is enough, when complaining surpasses its usefulness.
When Squeezing Becomes Crushing and Pressing Becomes Depressing
Being vulnerable to depression, I always need to watch my footing on its downward slope paved with the slippery detritus of too much sadness, anger, resentment, and other negative impulses. When kvetching, I have to be careful that I am not amplifying my misery by giving voice to it. One way I monitor this is by checking in to see how I feel after a purgative chat with a friend. Like the optometrist testing lenses, I ask myself: “Better? Worse? The same?” If I feel better, the kvetching served its purpose. If I feel worse or unchanged, it didn’t work and I know it’s time to guard my speech more carefully, be more reflective, maybe take it to the meditation cushion. Equally important is to acknowledge how the other person is feeling. Have I made them feel better, worse, unchanged? If they feel worse, my complaining as careened off the Eightfold Path into a kind of abusive speech that has caused harm and I need to stop and do some damage control, make sure my friend is ok.
One other caveat about kvetching is that it’s helpful to notice when you’re complaining about the same thing over and over and over. It could be a sign that you’re be stuck in a negative feedback loop, that you’re giving too much energy to whatever is the subject of your complaint, and not enough to solving a problem that needs your attention. Again, though, that’s a gift of kvetching, telling you (or your friend who has heard your same complaint 100 times telling you), “ok, enough! Time to move on.”
Used with mindful awareness of it pitfalls and appreciation of its virtue, sharing a good kvetch with an empathic friend can be powerfully healing, without needing to feel guilty for not bowing at the altar of positivity.
Kvetching doesn’t take itself as seriously as positivity. It’s willingness to enjoy self-deprecating or even gallows humor, can make it more approachable than other coping strategies.
A guy enters a monastery. He takes a vow of silence but every seven years he’s permitted to say two words.
Seven years pass, he’s brought before the senior monks who ask him for his two words. “Cold floors,” he says. The elders nod and send him back to his work.
After seven more years, they bring him back in and ask for his two words. “Bad food,” he says
They nod and he goes back to his cell.
Seven more years . . . they bring him before them for his two words. He says, “I quit.” “Not surprising,” the monks say. “You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”