Monday, February 28, 2011

A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, by Will Bowen

There is a significant amount of complaining that occurs in our house. Ellis, our turtle, wins the prize for most complaining. In fact, he has complained so much about being in our classroom aquarium that I recently set him free. Mosley, our dog, gets the silver prize. He's old and restless and his complaints are in the form of incessant whining, regardless of the fact that all of his needs have been more than adequately met. Then there are the children. Their complaints range from not enough food to too much food, not enough compliments to too many compliments, and too much together time to not enough together time. And then, there is me. I complain all of the time. My subjects are vast, but I tend to complain about my children's complaints, my dog's complaints, and my turtle's complaints.

When I stumbled across A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, by Will Bowen, I bought it without even reading the premise of the book. This was clearly a case of judging a book by its title.

Mr. Bowen is a minister who decided to start a movement in his church to stop complaining. He attacked his own complaint-filled life by wearing a bracelet on his left wrist. As soon as he complained, the bracelet had to go to the right wrist. The next day, he would put the bracelet back on the left wrist, where it would stay until he uttered a complaint. His goal for himself, his congregation, and the world, is to keep that bracelet on the left wrist for 21 days straight - WITHOUT complaining. Bowen went so far as to design a specific bracelet for purchase. His premise is that, if one can keep from complaining for 21 days straight, complaining in that individual's life will stop for good.

Along with specific tips on how to stop complaining, the book includes a compilation of stories touting the benefits of complaint-free living and the struggles to go even one day without complaining. Bowen more than adequately captures the struggle to change behavior in this book. Bowen writes, "In his play Fiction, one of Steven Dietz's characters remarks, 'Writers don't like to write; they like to have written.' Similarly, people don't like to change, but they like to have changed." He dispels the myth that self-will is enough; he provides a gimmick, in the form of a bracelet, as a tangible reminder that a vice needs to be addressed.

As is usual, I was pretty convicted by this book. However, I kept returning to this question: Do I need the bracelet? After all, I have the power of God available to me. Shouldn't that be enough to stop complaining? Am I not really a Christian because my complaining behavior has not changed? Have I just not prayed enough? Confessed enough? Why can't I stop complaining? Maybe - just maybe - I've not spent enough time thinking about how much I really do complain. Perhaps I need to be more horrified by my complaint-filled life.

I read this book on February 11th. Since then, I've been wondering if I really need the bracelet.

Yesterday, February 27th, I opened my beloved newspaper to Randy Cohen's final article. Randy Cohen has been "The Ethicist" for 12 years. He wrote 614 columns on ethics. In his final column yesterday, he writes this:

"I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn't have to be; it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn't. But it should have been. I wasn't hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging...What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing."

Here is a man who wrote about the need to change behavior for twelve years. He immersed himself in thinking about turning vices into virtues and it did not work, by his own admission. Maybe he just needed a bracelet during those 12 years.

But as I thought about Mr. Cohen and his sad admission in light of my own admission that I am a complainer, the answer struck me. This side of heaven, we will never get it completely right. I will never stop complaining, whether I buy the bracelet or not. Mr. Cohen will never become completely virtuous, whether his contract pays him to be ethical or not. This goes beyond the common adage that "Nobody is perfect." It points us to the fact that we live in a fallen world. And the response to that fact should not be a plastic bracelet. It should not be to feel demoralized. It should cause us to turn to the One who forgives and loves and provides new starts gazillions of times each day. And gratitude for that is what will help us change our behavior.


  1. I confess I bought the bracelet. One of my co-workers ordered a bunch for the office and I, enchanted by the idea of a life where I complained less, bought into the idea and the bracelet. I also confess that a few short weeks later, I had no idea where that bracelet had gotten to. That was at least three years ago....maybe that bracelet will turn up in the major spring purging about to happen at our house...

  2. Me, I just wish the people around me would just stop complaining. I mean, it gets so annoying. I wish they'd just be quiet and enjoy life. Sheesh. I'm just glad that I've gotten beyond complaining.

  3. Oh, and I just inwardly grumbled at the irritating feature of Blogger that requires me to type a sometimes unreadable nonsense word in order for comments to be heard. Is a complaint inwardly grumbled okay, or do I need to move the bracelet? If I type it, do I need to move it? Or only if I verbalize it?

  4. Linda - I'm so glad you confessed to having bought the bracelet. I wondered if it had worked for anyone I know. P.S. You still owe me a life update.

    Somber - Mr. Bowen addresses how to evaluate what constitutes a move of the bracelet. What he doesn't address is the the heart's motive in the decision to move or not move, unfortunately. I know a book that does address the heart, but I'm guessing you've already read it.