Roxane Gay Makes a Case for Why We Should All Quit Whining

The professor and author was the queen of complaints—until she realized what she was missing.

may 2015 WOLI stop whiningRuss and Reyn for Reader's DigestI have lived in rural America for nine years, first in Michigan, where I was getting my PhD; then in central Illinois; and now in Indiana, where I am a professor. In a place where most people have lived the whole of their lives, I feel like a stranger—someone on the outside looking in.

There are few things I enjoy more than complaining about my geographic isolation. I’m a vegetarian, so there’s nowhere to go for a nice dinner that isn’t 50 miles away. I’m black, so there’s nowhere to get my hair done that doesn’t involve another 50-mile drive. I’m single, and the dating options are, at times, grim. And the closest major airport is two hours away.

I recite these gripes to my parents, my brothers, my friends. Sometimes it seems like complaints are the lingua franca in my circle. We all are dissatisfied with something. Back in Illinois, my friends complained about the train to Chicago and how it’s never on time; my friends in bigger cities complain about the expensive rent and strange smells on the subway; my married friends complain about their partners; my single friends complain about the wretchedness of dating.

Complaining allows us to acknowledge the imperfect without having to take action—it lets us luxuriate in inertia. We all have grand ideas about what life would be like if only we had this, or did that, or lived there. Perhaps complaining helps bridge the vast yawn between these fantasy selves and reality.

And there’s this: I really don’t intend to change most of the things I complain about. Griping is seductive on those days when happiness requires too much energy. But it also makes me lose sight of the fact that I was born and bred in Nebraska and have lived most of my life in one of the plains states. When I go to the coasts, I am struck by how ultimately unappealing big-city living can be.

And while I may not love where I live, there are plenty of people who are proud to call this place home. At a party with colleagues, I was going on about everything I couldn’t stand in our town when I noticed that they were silent and shifting uncomfortably. That humbling moment forced a shift in me.

Complaining may offer relief, but so does acceptance. There is no perfect place. There is no perfect life. There will always be something to moan about. By focusing on grievances, I risk missing out on precious, startling moments of appreciation. Those times when, during a drive home from the airport, I stare at the prairie flatness, the breathtaking shades of green as buds of corn push up through freshly tilled soil; at the wooden barns, their paint peeling and faded; and at pieces of farm equipment, massive but with poetry in how they rumble across the land. When I get home, I stand on my balcony and look up into the night sky and see the stars. And I know that I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Quit whining, and learn an interesting fact or two.

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Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is an English professor at Purdue University and the author of Bad Feminist, an essay collection, and An Untamed State, a novel.