I’d rather complain than give thanks: My Thanksgiving Dilemma

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Those who know me well will understand my struggle on Thanksgiving. I’m a complainer. I “always have something to say,” as my mother often reminds me. And after 25 years of being alive, I’ve resigned myself to accepting that this is who I am, I was born this way. And like Lady Gaga, I’ve come to see that God has not made a mistake in creating me so.

While many will juxtapose complaining with gratitude, I’d argue that complaining is just a different facet offering praise to God. When I look more deeply at the reasons why I’m complaining, I find an unquenchable longing for love, beauty, and truth-what the late Monsignor Luigi Giussani calls the “religious sense.” This longing can never be satisfied by some solution or ideology that we formulate for ourselves. Rather, “the object of the religious sense is ultimately the unfathomable Mystery, which is impossible for man to reach by his own means.”

Msgr. Giussani with his students in Milan

The more I engage with my work and relationships, I recognize that reality “rouses this thirst that it is unable to quench, a hunger it is unable to satisfy.” Two examples that come to mind involve my experiences with teaching and with friendship. I often have flashbacks to my high school days when I would invite my “clique” over on weekends to hang out, swim, watch movies, and do stupid teen stuff. I remember having a deep pain shiver in my heart when it was time for them to leave. I dreaded having to say goodbye to them.

My parents would tell me I’m too clingy, but I knew it was more than that. This was a matter beyond emotional immaturity…it was a problem of my humanity. This profoundly human drama, this desire to spend an infinite amount of time together and to have an infinitely beautiful experience each time we were together is what made me complain that “last weekend” (every weekend) was not enough. It seemed like nothing was ever enough. I was always looking for a bigger, better, and more beautiful experience than the last.

That eternal sense of dissatisfaction continued well into my young adulthood, and found itself growing more and more in my experience as a high school teacher. My first year teaching was an utter train wreck, as it is for most novice teachers. It wasn’t until the end of my second year that I began feeling confident in my ability to teach. I remember waiting for the stage in my growth as a teacher when I could stand up on my own two and run a class with ease. As I was reading my evaluations at the end of that year, I was surprised to see that the majority of my students thoroughly enjoyed my class, and responded to the question “what would you change about this class” with “nothing at all” and “it’s perfect as it is…you’re my new favorite teacher” (mind you this was anonymous, so I’m ruling out the chance that he was fishing for extra points). This was the moment I’ve been waiting for!…or so I thought.

“Is this it?” I thought to myself. I remember feeling totally empty. “This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all along? Now what?” I still wanted more. “Who cares that I’m their favorite teacher. Will they remember anything I taught them? What will become of their lives?” Even when the circumstances were seemingly ideal, I still found myself complaining.

But it’s precisely this tendency of mine that keeps me thirsty, keeps me searching for more, and keeps me on my knees begging the infinite Mystery to show me His face. Perhaps this is why Msgr. Giussani once told a group of students, “may you never be satisfied, may you always be hungry for more.” My tendency to complain is what keeps me open to recognizing the new ways Christ will seek to reveal Himself to me.

That being said, I can’t ignore the negative impact that this tendency sometimes has on me. As much as complaining may lead you to seeking God in new and deeper ways, it can very easily morph into an inability to recognize the good which God has already given you. This nasty attitude of ingratitude can get caught up with an unhealthy drive for ambition. I see this come up often in my relationships with my students.

As a theology teacher, I deeply desire for my students to have a personal encounter with Christ through our experience in class. Every once in awhile, something will spark in one of my students. I remember last semester, a junior came to see me after school because he, after a difficult break up with his girlfriend, realized how much he needed to spend more time in prayer, and asked me to help him. I was so moved by this kid’s willingness to be vulnerable and open up to me in that way. But by the next morning, I forgot about his request and started praying that more students would come up to me and ask for help. Of course this thirst for more than what I’ve already been given is both good and natural, but without taking time to express gratitude, it blocks me from recognizing how God is already present to me at the current moment: through that one kid who sought my help yesterday.

So I guess Thanksgiving is indeed important after all, and that I probably should take advantage of the opportunity to give thanks for the gifts that have already been given to me…lest I run the risk of losing sight of those gifts while drowning in a sea of complaining. Perhaps this risk is why Pope Francis posted a sign in his house at the Vatican that reads “Vietato Lamentarsi” (complaining is not allowed). Francis often calls out Christians like myself who complain too much, once saying that we “have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.” Well, Francis, I don’t know if I’ll be able to follow that rule to a T (and thank God he didn’t say that ex cathedra), but I will at least keep your exhortation into consideration this Thanksgiving.

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