January 4, 2009

Everyone I know is miserable right now. They're worried and irritable; fretting about the future. At first I thought this was good news. Finally, I'm not alone.

But as levels of catastrophe have risen and become so extreme, it's raised the bar for what's now considered a legitimate complaint. You can't complain about work anymore without someone saying: "At least you have work."

Complain about a leaking ceiling and someone will say: "At least you have a ceiling."

A few days ago I complained about my neighbors being loud.

"Okay," my friend snapped. "Just be happy you're not in Gaza."

Is this the barometer? Now I feel more isolated than ever. I still have a home and I'm not being shot at. I should feel good.

I've discovered it helps to complain about things that are universal. The senseless cruelty of nature. Global warming. And feeling fat.

Feeling fat never gets old. The "I feel fat" complaint is ageless and not gender specific. Who doesn't love to hear someone can't button their pants? It's always welcome. Maybe because it's reassuring you're not alone while at the same time, non-threatening. It's such an old-fashioned and homespun complaint. People embrace it.

If I complain about mistakes I've made, no one has sympathy. They're impatient and point out it's my own fault. But if I say I ate too much cake and feel sick? People have nothing but time. Isn't that my own fault too? Yet there's no blame. Just empathy. It's a classic.

Classic complaints have a feel-good component. "I feel fat" is acceptable because it comes from a happy indulgence. It suggests eating too many mince pies. It's cheerful.

Modern complaints are more unsettling. "I feel stuck" comes from a place of emotional inertia; not getting out of bed and not caring. It suggests a lifetime of failure. This is not cheerful, it's scary.

Another acceptable complaint is discussing a bad meal. You can complain about this for hours and still have someone's undivided attention. People have no problem offering sympathy if you've had a bad piece of tuna. There's no guilt and they forget they're only on earth for a certain amount of time.

An unwelcome complaint is anything that has to do with someone's personality. Even prefacing it with "I feel" doesn't help. People aren't interested in how you feel unless you feel fat or sick from a bad meal.

Complaints about being dumped will continue to be popular. There's always an audience for that. You can tell anyone you've been dumped and they'll feel bad for you without qualification. Although telling someone who's going through a divorce is tricky because you're likely to hear: "Be grateful you never got married."

I've never understood why people think gratitude is forsaken when you're complaining. There are many things in my life I'm grateful for but my gratitude is non-verbal.

2009 will be a challenging year for pessimists. With everyone in such dire circumstances, people will be working really hard to look on the positive side. People love to say "so much can change in a year". But they always use that to point to good things and new beginnings. Meeting the love of your life, getting married, pregnant, moving, promoted, and so on. But what about when so much can change - for the worse? Next year at this time - who knows what can happen.

Not everyone will lose billions but that doesn't mean their financial woes will be any less real.

My father has a great philosophy, he says: "You are the same person you've always been. That doesn't change."

Yeah. That's a problem.