05 July 2007

Can't Complain? Won't Complain!

(not going to be easy...but yeah, I'm planning to try out being on the AComplaintFreeWorld bandwagon. Here's what I've just written as my column for the August issue of our synagogue newsletter where I work:)

Can’t Complain? Won’t Complain!

“The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.” I’m not convinced! Studies say optimists live longer. Even if negativity doesn’t shorten my life, it robs it of depth and breadth—of richness, creativity, and joy.

You may see me sporting a purple wristband that says “Spirit.” I’m not on the Pep Squad: I’m taking up the challenge to refrain from complaining for 21 days in a row. When I catch myself complaining, gossiping, or criticizing, I’ll move the wristband from one arm to the other and re-start my count from the beginning. I know it’ll be difficult (who knows whether I’ll succeed before 5768 is over!), but it will be worth it. Every time I keep myself from negative or harmful speech—or catch myself in the act and move toward correcting it—I will be working to shape my life and my community with positive intentions.

A pastor in Kansas City started up this practice—so what’s Jewish about it? Plenty!

The month of Elul has long been a time for reflection and moral self-improvement. We should be devoting the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur to teshuvah (repentance)—so trying for just 21 days is actually giving myself a break!

Judaism focuses on actions and consequences, not just on intentions. If you speak kindly, your act of chesed deserves praise. If you meant to help a friend by pointing out a problem, but you spoke tactlessly and made her feel bad, the negative power of your words is not erased by your good intentions. We can only grow as individuals and as a community if we recognize our faults—but all of us, being only human, find even constructive criticism more palatable when sweetened with the right words. How can I try to make my well-meaning comments not come off as complaints? Before offering suggestions for improvement, I should first praise what has been done well, acknowledge the shared hopes that lead us to seek better ways together, and show patience with the failings of myself and others.

The Torah recognizes that we all need help remembering our ideals. After Sinai, the Israelites are told to put tzitzit (fringes) on their garments, so that “you will see them and be reminded of all the Lord's commandments, and fulfill them, and not be seduced by your heart nor led astray by your eyes” (Numbers 15:39). Likewise, the purple wristband should help me call to mind my chosen commitments to my community.

When we fall short, how do we overcome our past mistakes? Maimonides gives the following steps for meaningful repentance: 1) identifying the transgression (my negative speech is lashon ha-ra, “evil tongue”); 2) regretting it (I’m sorry for the ways I’ve hurt others with complaints or criticism); 3) resolving not to do it again (I’m using this purple bracelet as a visible reminder not to speak negatively); and finally, 4) acting differently when the chance to fall into the same bad behavior presents itself (if I can use my tongue wisely for 21 days in a row, that’ll be a good start!).

When I’ve kept my purple band on one wrist for 21 days, my life may not be longer, but it will be better: “happier, more loving, more positive and more abundant” (AComplaintFreeWorld.org). Ken y’hi ratzon – so may it be God’s will!

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