Last Thursday, my writer-blogger-OI-mom friend Rachel and I (we refer to ourselves as the “OI giantesses,” because at 5′ 1″ and 4′ 8″ respectively, we are indeed huge by the standards of OI, the genetic bone disorder we share) spent the day together; it was our first face-to-face meeting after about a year of online communication. True to our expectations, Rachel and I discovered that we could be ourselves with the other, warts and all.
One of the “warts” we kept referring to in e-mails after our visit was our tendency to whine, especially about the various indignities of being a writer in the digital era. We each expressed gratitude to the other for listening to (and joining in on) our whining about curmudgeonly commenters, low (or nonexistent) pay, and other frustrations of our work. “Thank you,” we said to each other, “for letting me whine.”
Like many people, I have a very low tolerance for whining. When called upon to stay up all night with a vomiting child, read the same story book over and over, supervise mind-numbing kindergarten homework, wipe bottoms, or wrestle overtired tots into bed, I do so willingly, perhaps even cheerfully. But when the whining starts? Especially when the kids whine about the same things day in and day out? Like how they always get the short end of the stick compared with their siblings, how much it hurts when I brush the tangles out of their hair, my highly unreasonable demand that they brush their teeth before school every single day, or my insistence on serving dinners other than mac and cheese, pizza, and chicken nuggets? When they whine about those things, and so many others, my fuse gets very short.
Our cultural tolerance for whining can also be quite low. We live in a culture where “pain is gain,” where rugged independence and dogged persistence in the face of adversity are valued. Whining is perceived as weak, ineffective, a way of avoiding hard work and self-improvement.
The bottom line is that most of us have very low tolerance for whining—our own as well as others’. We pepper our own whining with apologies. “I’m sorry to do so much whining,” Rachel and I kept saying to each other last Thursday.
With my day with Rachel fresh in my mind, I opened my springtime Divine Hours prayer book this morning to find this line from Psalm 55:
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice.
Yesterday, I finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, her biography of Louis Zamperini, a high school and Olympic track star who spent several horrific, dehumanizing years in Japanese POW camps during World War II. After the war, Zamperini sank into a quagmire of anger, alcoholism, violence, and revenge fantasies against a prison guard who singled him out for brutal punishment.
But after his wife dragged him to a Billy Graham meeting one weekend in Los Angeles, everything changed. Zamperini recalled that, when he was lost at sea for more than 40 days following his bomber’s crash into the Pacific and before being rescued by a Japanese ship and then sent on to his harrowing POW experience, he had told God that if God would save him, he would serve God forever.
God had saved him, he realized. Zamperini had survived a plane crash, being lost at sea, physical and psychological abuse, backbreaking labor, starvation, and a host of life-threatening illnesses and injuries. He returned from the Graham crusade that night, poured out all of his liquor, and never again had nightmares about the prison guard who had so brutalized him.
Much of Zamperini’s story is beyond belief. How does a man endure what he endured and not only survive, but eventually thrive in physical, psychological, and emotional health? But one part of the story that I could believe without doubt was that God was capable of loving and transforming this broken, haunted man.
That God, of bountiful love and grace, of power able to overcome the most horrific human experiences, is familiar to me.
But a God willing to hear my voice when I complain—when I whine—morning, noon, and night? The idea of that God was something of a revelation to me this morning. My own experience as a parent was coloring my view of God. I thought that God, like me, could rise to the occasion when things are really bad for his children, just as I can be calm and soothing as the stomach bug rampages through my family. But I figured that, like me, God probably gets impatient with the constant and petty nature of human whining.
Maybe God does get impatient. But the psalmist says God continues to listen anyway. That is one remarkable God. Last Thursday, even as we kept apologizing to each other, Rachel and I went right on whining, finding solace in having our unsavory complaints both accepted and affirmed by the other. Perhaps, in that smallest of ways, we were embodying the love of God for each other. A God who never stops listening, even to whiners.