Idle complaint and freedom

Something I’ve been thinking about for several years is the phenomenon of idle complaint: Complaining to another when no solution can possibly result. Is it a release valve? A socialized behavior? A personality trait?

As I spend time with all kinds of people, I am struck by the sheer volume of idle complaint in the world. If I give a random person my ear, this is often what they fill it with. Not their hopes, dreams, loves, desires – but what drives them crazy, without hope of its changing. Where does it all come from?

My present idea is that idle complaint represents an attempt to escape a fundamental moral dilemma posed by freedom: That when faced with any event, we have two choices: respond or accept. By responding, we act to change the situation, flee from it, or request change from another; by accepting, we permit the event to transpire, then return our attention to the present. The event becomes part of our past, and we face whatever new events result from it.

However, as clear cut as the situation is – change things, or don’t change them – some events cause a psychological withdrawal from the necessity of choosing. These are things we refuse to accept, but feel powerless to change. Since we neither act nor accept, the event gets “stuck” in our response queue, waiting for us to find a solution. I believe these stuck events cause a mounting sense of anxiety – a feeling we’ve left something undone – which causes us to play out that anxiety with others, to lessen the pain. Hence, idle complaint.

The requirements of freedom are harsh and unforgiving: One acts, or loses the opportunity to act. If one does not act, he must accept; if he does not accept, he must act. Don’t like the way our governments manage the world? Act. Don’t want to act? Accept. There are no other choices – though the field of action is very wide, and filled with creative possibilities.

Idle complaint refuses to accept the fact that life owes us nothing. It does not have to stop, rewind, or undo whatever wrong bothered us. It moves along, permitting us the freedom to act, but passing right on by if we don’t. For a basic edict of freedom is this: If we don’t act, injustice has as much freedom to continue as our freedom to fight against it. Complaining that injustice should have no such freedom is secretly a wish for no freedom at all. Hence the idle complaint, which asks that the world answer for what happens, without our ever having to act, or accept it.

In bringing these issues to light, I mean to clarify the extent of our freedom – and that of others – and of our capacity for action. When you find an issue you care about: Move! Let the others drop. Since no one can fight every battle, it’s OK to accept the atrocities we choose not to fight against (by “accept”, I mean acknowledge their freedom to occur, not that one morally agree with their content). Where there is both acceptance and action, we put our freedom to use. It’s only idle complaint that absorbs huge sums of energy without return. It’s even worse than accepting, though it feels like an active stance. For everything has been allowed its freedom: this, at the root of it, is why we can never expect the world to act differently than it does: we can only choose to accept things, or act to change them.