It turned cold and snow fell here in the Little Balkans last week, which a lot of people found a little upsetting and good reason to complain.
Garrison Keillor calls this griping about winter “ritual complaint,” an attempt by people living comfy lives to acquire the dignity of suffering. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron calls it bourgeoisie (middle class) suffering, the kind expressed in petulant carping about things like not having a brand new car or being able to afford the latest iPhone.
There’s no need to hurry it along, according to Keillor, “Genuine suffering is on its way sooner than you think.”
If you want to see some real suffering just reread the Bible story of Job who loses his livestock, servants and ten children - and is afflicted with boils to the point that his friends barely recognize him. This causes him to ask God for some rational explanation of why good people like him suffer and evil people do not. God declines, suggesting that he’s not capable of understanding his divine ways.
The people I grew up with in the Republic of Frontenac, an immigrant mining community, didn’t try to understand God, they just pulled together and kept on living. I heard old stories of pain, loss, near-starvation, death and affliction of all sorts but rarely were they portrayed as suffering. If you were to complain to a deep shaft coal miner about winter cold and snow he would look at you with genuine astonishment.
As for me, when winter comes, I don’t long for tropical cruises or vacations in Florida, I prefer cold. I’m a writer. The tropics deplete my creative sensibilities. I’ve gone to visit my brother in Hawaii in January and sat dumbly on the beach watching the massive waves unable to compose even a limerick.
But I come alive with creative ideas when I’m bundled in a heavy sweater, hoodie, gloves and two layers of sweatpants on a cold morning walk with my double-insulated Labradorian. And when I get back home I’m good for at least one haiku.
By late afternoon, the thermostat set at 68, I’m bundled up at my computer — with a fire roaring in the hearth and the fragrance of roasting Pallucca’s sausage drifting in from the kitchen — finishing my column to make the deadline.
I’m also better, in winter, at dealing with unreasonable antagonism, like bogus phone calls that tell me my computer needs work and marketers calling to offer special discounts on heart attack insurance and devices to relieve my back pain. Rather than fume and curse at them as I stamp around scaring Arlo out of his afternoon hibernation, I politely say “No thank you,” and hang up.
This is my winter way. In summer I’m prone to quiz them on their religious affiliation and inform them that they should start looking for another job or, if they’re truly Christian, they’ll likely end up in hell in the afterlife for scamming and bothering people. If they report they are Buddhist or Hindu, I tell them that if they don’t stop, they’ll be reincarnated as a slug or cockroach.
Getting back to complaints, I’m guessing they would stop pretty fast if everybody in town was told they had a choice between accepting snow and cold or having to drive over to Joplin to have a root canal — which I did last Wednesday.
A toothache is a pretty good example of ‘genuine suffering’ as it hurts the same rather you be rich or poor, clueless or enlightened. Even Job didn’t get a toothache. God must have figured that would be taking it too far.
The difference for me is that, as a member of the middle class, I have the means to get dental treatment. At Show-Me Endodontics, Dr. Mulherin, who did my root canal, used deep breathing mindfulness techniques to relax me (along with some excellent numbing drugs), hummed along with the tune of soothing music and finished my root canal in an hour.
Lest I get too snooty about my ability to avoid false suffering, I got help from a local man last week. When, after hearing him complain about the cold, I responded with, “I love it. Besides, yesterday (Sunday) was a marvelous, sunny day full of fall color with a temperature in the upper 50s.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “that’s true. But what about the miserable way the Chiefs lost?”
“Ungh!” I grunted. “Why did you have to bring that up?”
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762