Fresh Ideas: Privilege, excess may spawn thankless culture

A recent visitor was commenting on complaining. “I’m tired of everyone always being dissatisfied, criticizing everything.” He considered for a moment, and continued: “I’m tired of me complaining about people complaining!” We laughed about that. However, that’s what we see around us, especially in the media: criticizing, complaining, demanding, arguing, and the final corollary, murder. It’s a vitriolic situation that spans the globe.

There is, of course, the genetic “fight or flight” predisposition shared by all of us animals, handy when saber-toothed tigers lurked in the underbrush and there we were, no claws or tusks or fangs. We were always ready to act, particularly after we gained weapons. Today, watchfulness, assessment, and reaction have somehow morphed into dissatisfaction and criticism.

Folks today who are healthy and managing to support themselves may not realize just how privileged they are. Our country is one of plenty and entitlement.

The abundance available today is beyond anything ever before experienced by humans; just look around. Giant stores bulge with hundreds of thousands of items. There’s free childhood education. Clean water is available, and we still have free air. Adequate housing, transportation, medical attention, and entertainment are available. The web offers unprecedented resources.

One trouble with excessive abundance is with so much available we don’t feel too badly about wasting what we have left over, since there’s always more to be had. A sense of entitlement can set in as we unconsciously begin to feel it’s our right to have a gazillion choices, possess more things than we can ever use, and squander the excess.

And complacency brings us to feel it’s natural to complain, as our genetically developed critical attention can always find something “wrong” in our environment. This evolutionary sidebar still has us fighting for our lives with all our might.

Of course, feral tigers do exist in the human form. They will use every brutal weapon available, be it a slap, fist, knife, a hapless jihadist, a hail of missiles, or all-out war.

More frequently, though, we fight paper tigers. But when allegedly civilized beings attack with words, their subtle wounds can pain our fleshy brains just as much fangs and claws elsewhere, particularly if we believe what is said. Children who believe their critics often choose simply to take emotional flight and just withdraw.

For the criticizer, angry emotions and complaining may become an habitual, unconscious behavior that informs their everyday life. If a criticizer creates a sense of failure or inadequacy in a child who takes the comments to heart, a life-long habit of self-condemnation can begin. This is a toxic behavior; I once kept company with a dying woman my own age, who confessed to me she’d often had the thought, “I wish I were dead.”

Most of the wisdom I’ve read suggests we can only change ourselves, so criticizing and complaining are pointless. The energy we waste trying to change the behavior of others could be used so more constructively to examine our own shortcomings. This is a daunting thought, given the pervasive aura of privilege and entitlement our commercial culture has woven around us, by providing those millions of choices, like a horn of plenty. Abundance gives us little incentive to do the hard work of critiquing our own lives.

It’s a trap, though. As Sophocles put it, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Knowing about yourself, being honest with yourself, forgiving yourself, and living as if you respect yourself, are achievable.

Besides, we live in the lap of luxury — so why aren’t we more grateful?

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.


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