My dog Gracie has been complaining a lot lately. Like many people I know, she complains about the government, which in her case is me. And like the government does to people, I mostly ignore her. I think I’m a pretty good dog-owner though. Gracie gets healthy food twice a day and has a basket full of stuffed animals. She uses those as tools of manipulation; Gracie knows she looks cute with one in her mouth. She has a brand new memory foam bed that she basically snubs in favor of our king-size memory foam bed. And who wouldn’t?
Gracie has what I call big fat problems, by which I mean she doesn’t have problems at all, really. There is just crap that annoys her. Here’s an example: this morning our patio is sun-filled and warmish, the perfect place to lay down your weary dog carcass and soak it up. Instead, I can hear her out there talking, the way golden retrievers do. What she’s saying is, “Why the hell have you left me out here with the dog?” The dog is our other dog, Scout. Scout doesn’t have big fat problems; she understands the hand that feeds her should remain unbitten. Scout was found at 4 weeks old in a dumpster; she’s not one to raise a stink over living in an Austin condo. She is out there on the patio, digging it.
Gracie’s big fat problems mostly involve other individuals not doing what she wants them to do. Again, similar to the complaints of most people. She is ticked off at me for not opening the door to the patio right now, damn it. Often her lamentations are about Scout lying on the brown blanket. Unless Scout is lying on the beige blanket, in which case that becomes the big fat problem.
Most of the stuff people think are troubles are just big fat problems, too. I think I’m probably similar to you in what I complain about. My internet is slower than the lightning speed I was promised, which bugs me. I have stupid hair. I don’t seem to get any better at yoga. My neighbor doesn’t clean his dryer lint screen after every load and some of it blows out of the vent on the side of our building, floating down onto my patio. The floating lint doesn’t seem to bother Gracie when she’s out there complaining full time about the government.
Sometimes people complain about stuff, then laugh and say, “First-world problems.” That way they can make fun of themselves and still get their complaint out there to be heard. What they really mean is that they have My-world problems; that the-world-according-to-Me is wonky.
Every once in a while I get tired of hearing complaints that are really just big fat problems. Because life is being lived out there by some folks with actual problems.
Like a first-grader I worked with awhile ago who told me while we were eating chicken nuggets and french fries that his mom slept with a knife under her pillow because her boyfriend was mean, and that his uncle couldn’t work “because he has the mildew”. The mildew was what the family called the uncle’s meth addiction. I didn’t complain about anything for awhile after that conversation.
Fourteen years ago on January 1, I got a phone call from a brother-in-law telling me my nephew was dead. Suicide. He was 19 years old and had some big fat problems. Turned out he also had some real-world problems and those of us who noticed figured it out too late. It’s not our fault—it’s nobody’s fault when someone you love commits suicide—but that does not stop you from beating yourself up or getting pissed off about it on occasion.
I was asked to plan the funeral for my nephew and so the morning after receiving that phone call, Brian and I drove, from my folks’ house where we had been visiting, up to the Twin Cities. I didn’t even know how to plan a funeral. Probably I could have googled it but that didn’t occur to me that morning. We stopped at a fast food place for coffee and a quick breakfast on the way. At the counter, the girl who took my order seemed nervous and eager to have me leave and so she was rude. I realized I looked pretty bad: bloodshot eyes set into a face red and puffy from 12 hours of sobbing, and my always-stupid hair was spectacularly bad that day. I had a headache. Counter-girl didn’t have a clue what was happening in my family.
While we ate our crummy little breakfast in that place on US 52, I had a first-world epiphany: I should cut other people some damn slack because I had no idea what hell their previous 12 hours had delivered to them.
It doesn’t take much to remind myself of that morning; to turn my annoyance at a stranger or a friend’s behavior into toleration because they might actually be in a world of hurt that I am not a party to.
I still complain about my big fat problems more than I need to, but an addendum to my standard resolution list this year is to stop saying negative stuff. I am off to a good start. I smiled at my hair this morning and said to the mirror, “It’s not horrible.”
Now excuse me while I go let Gracie and the dog in.