Few things annoy me more than someone saying, “I can’t complain.”
Because you can. Of course you can. There is always something wrong: if not with you, then with the world as a whole. And maybe it’s because I can always complain — and I’m really quite good at it — but it always feels a little condescending. It’s a dare almost, as if to say, “I can live my life free of complaints. I challenge you to do the same.” If that’s the game of it, I forfeit. I’d rather complain than be zen and obnoxious.
But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about contentment, or the lack thereof. It’s a problem I’ve encountered throughout my life, and it’s something I think we all deal with to varying degrees. There’s this sense that life would be perfect if we could just fix this one thing — and then we fix this one thing, and life still isn’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. For me, that’s always inspired guilt. Here I am, living a relatively carefree existence, and I’m still not 100 percent happy all the time. What more could I possibly want?
And even ignoring the massive injustices in the world, the rampant misogyny and homophobia that dominate our culture, the fact that countless children are going to bed hungry — even on a smaller scale of just my life, I’m not sure how much better things could really be. The big three are a great job, a great apartment, and a great boyfriend. Not to brag, but I have all three. So is there a fourth that I’m missing, or am I doomed (like the rest of us) to constantly seek out a sense of satisfaction and inner peace that simply doesn’t exist?
The short version: probably. I think we’re conditioned to always be striving for more. No one ever feels truly satisfied by his or her success, whether personally or professionally. And so, when asked, “How are things?” the appropriate responses are limited. Either you recognize everything great in your life, you realize how lucky you are objectively, and you answer, “I can’t complain,” because saying “I’m blissful” is false but anything else feels ungrateful. Or, if you’re like me, you recognize everything great in your life, but you also think about everything that’s somehow lacking, and to avoid being a whiny asshole, you say, “It’s fine.”
There is nothing wrong with being “fine.” Being fine means that you can complain, but that everything is at least OK. It’s the status quo, and it’s the answer most of us give every time we’re asked. If someone said to me, “Would you be satisfied being ‘fine’ or ‘just OK’ for the rest of your life?” I think I’d begrudgingly accept. Because even accounting for the highs and lows, the average of my experiences will almost certainly be somewhere in the middle. And there’s something tempting about cutting through the bullshit of feelings (both good and bad) and just accepting the in-between.
At the same time, that’s depressing. We all want to be able to say we’re happy. And looking toward the (hopefully very distant) future when we’re near death, we want to look back on our lives and smile. I’m not sure that’s a realistic goal, but hey, perhaps with senility we’ll get there. Really, though, whose life is so perfect that he or she can reflect on it as a whole and see only good things? I’ve been taking Prozac for years and I still don’t feel that optimistic.
So here’s what I keep coming back to: moments. In therapy I was taught to be mindful, and while I never really got into mindfulness meditation, the concept appealed to me. Living in the moment means shutting out all anxieties about the past and future in order to focus solely on the now. The idea is that whatever good thing you’re feeling — the ice cream you’re eating, the positive feedback you’re receiving, the orgasm that’s curling your toes — is the only thing you’re feeling. It’s easier said than done, but I think that’s the key to feeling more than “fine.” Because in any of those moments, when taken individually, you are not “just OK” — you’re fucking great.
Lately, because my life has been better than usual — especially when viewed from the outside in — I’ve come back to the “I can’t complain” quandary. It’s still not something I want to say (and I will never, ever, because it’s the worst) but I feel like I’m approaching that point where asking for anything more seems greedy. And so, the next time someone asks me how I am, I’m going to focus on that particular moment: what do I see? smell? taste? feel? Ideally, I can answer “I’m really good” and mean it. Because in that one isolated moment, what is there really to complain about?