On Indignation

Something about indignation is enticing. Where there is a group of people, particularly an institution, there are pockets of indignation, complaining, and gossip. Groups within the group form, sometimes around a core of mutual disdain for a particular person or policy. When groups become too insulated, and feed on their indignation, they can stoke each others’ feelings of persecution, warranted or not.

Shared complaining has value. It can bring cohesion to a group and healing to its members. As a person who tends to think problems are in my mind, I can feel enormously relieved to discover that others share my concerns. Feeling included in a person’s confidence, to share their problems and secrets, can inspire feelings of self-worth, however temporary. These conversations can be opportunities to relieve emotional pressure, identify shared problems, and start to work toward solutions. Gossip can protect potential victims from abuses that are not otherwise being addressed, or transmit information that affects many people, although the information becomes quickly diluted, changed, and separated from the facts.

Though I see some purpose to these activities, I’ve seen cultures of complaining become toxic. Feeding on each other’s indignation can be like filling up on potato chips instead of salad. In the short term it can feel good and comforting, but we lose the opportunity for other kinds of nourishment and continue craving the short-term comforts. Vicious gossip treated as declarations of fact can cause irreversible damage to lives and careers.

R.F. Jehanne, The peacock complaining at Juno

I struggle to find right relationship. Completely avoiding any of these conversations can become socially isolating and forego opportunities for collective healing. Completely engaging in constant complaints, gripes, and stoking feelings of persecution only ends up leaving me feel powerless, bitter, and antagonized.

The transformative road, I think, comes from willingness to take action. Anger points to a place where we have suffered hurt to our selves or integrity. We need to take action to rectify this, whether it is setting a limit, changing our attitudes, or something bigger. Anger toward a collective  wrong points to our personal desire to resist and transform that wrong.

An unchecked culture of complaining drains the group’s capacity to address the wrong. If we have all decided that this offending preson can do no better, then we feel powerless to make the situation better. We feed feelings of persecution and avoid the uncomfortable choices required to make change.

I have participated in meetings called specifically to address toxic group dynamics, believed everyone participated meaningfully and whole-heartedly to try to address the problems, and then immediately after heard someone begin to trash-talk the process, the participants, and voice the grudges they hid when speaking could have made a difference.  We are not served by this kind of self-silencing. We are not served by avoiding conflict and uncomfortable conversations. We lose the opportunity to create communities of joy and mutual cooperation.

Someone I know has recently asked her coworkers to commit to an hour during lunch in which every present agrees to focus on mutual encouragement and positive, supportive topics. My teacher offers a suggestion to speak to a trusted ally and make a commitment: “I need five minutes to vent.” For me, this practice reminds me that I do need, sometimes, to talk through my frustrations and speak to the parts of me that might not be particularly “adult” but still need attention. When I try to deny this, complaining sneaks out in sarcastic asides or unplanned tirades that take up more time and energy than if I’d caught the need and addressed it honestly.

It’s unwise to believe that everyone in the world will always deal with us honestly and fairly, but we can do a lot to support each other in being our best selves. When I am willing to be forthright, honest, and direct, I give others the opportunity to do so themselves. Even when my attempts to be courageous fail, I find that I like myself much better having made the effort rather than settling for a steady diet of indignation.