Aren't I Allowed to Complain?

By Richard Glover Published May 22, 2023 18:02:41 IST
Aren't I Allowed to Complain? ILLUSTRATION BY Sam Island

“The sighing and the groaning only makes it worse,” says Jocasta, referring to the sounds I make while hopping out of bed in the morning. It’s true that I commence with an “oomph” as I move to an upright position, then an “ahhh” as I swing my legs off the bed, followed by an “arrrrrrrgh” as I get to my feet.

Then there’s an “oh God” as I realize that my knees are, once more, unequal to the task they’ve been set. Jocasta believes in positive thinking. “All this complaining will simply make you feel worse,” my wife says. “If you act like a young gazelle, leaping across the savannah first thing in the morning, then you’ll feel like a young gazelle. It really is that simple.”

I’m guessing Jocasta doesn’t know many young gazelles, at least not ones with aching knees, tired ankles and a belly that can only be described as ‘third trimester’.

I decide to annoy her in the time-honoured manner of husbands everywhere. I will follow her instructions, but to the power of 10. If she wants positive thinking, she’ll get positive thinking. 

The curtains are first. I fling them open, allowing sunlight to flood the room. “What a beautiful morning!” I say in a too-cheerful voice. “The sun in all its majesty is commanding its troops to get going! Why the frown, darling? Why the blinking against the glorious light?”

Jocasta sighs. “Just make a cup of tea, will you?”

I turn on the kettle, then pop my head back through the door. “I’m planning a pot of Sri Lanka’s finest,” I tell her. “It was picked on the cool slopes of the country’s mountainous central district, the early morning light catching the brightly coloured saris of the pickers. The resulting nectar will be served with milk given by a diligent young cow, reared on grassy fields not that far from here.”

“Look, can you give it a rest?” says Jocasta. “I just thought you shouldn’t complain so much about your knee.”I return with the tea and that mor-ning’s newspaper.

“This morning’s paper is full of such marvellous news,” I say, placing the tea by her side and newspaper on to her lap. “Governments working diligently; politicians selflessly putting their own interests aside in the cause of the nation. It’s hard to know where to start when acknowledging their excellent work.”

Jocasta wearily picks up the newspaper. “I never asked for this much cheerfulness; just a short break from the moaning and groaning.”

I nod vigorously. “And so, my sweet, you shall receive your heart’s desire.”

This does not impress Jocasta. “If you want the science about positivity,” she says, “I can give you that. The body responds to signals sent by your brain. Mood represents the chemical instructions you’ve decided to send yourself. When you spend 23 hours a day sounding like a miserable old man, you’ll turn into a miserable old man.”

I take a sip of tea before putting forth the alternative case. “Yes,” I say, “but what about the research by Dr Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain? It showed that people can put up with the pain of holding their hands in icy water better if allowed to swear.” (I’m not making this up.)

“So,” I continue, “when I limp off to work, muttering ‘Oh God, my knee,’ I’m just acting on the latest science.”

This was rewarded with one of Jocasta’s dark looks. “Since when have you been a subscriber to the Scandinavian Journal of Pain?”

I allow myself a sniffy rejoinder. “I read all sorts of publications. It pays to be well informed.”

Some minutes later, I print out the study and place it next to Jocasta as she eats her breakfast. Dr Stephens, working alongside Olly Robertson from Oxford University—all of this really is true—asked 92 participants to plunge their hands into near-freezing water while assessing their pain levels. Those allowed to swear experienced a one-third increase in their ability to tolerate the pain.

“Science is science,” I tell Jocasta, pointing to the findings. “You don’t have to be a subscriber to the Scandinavian Journal of Pain to understand the utility of expressing one’s authentic feelings.”

Jocasta turns to face me. “I’m not anti-swearing or anti-authenticity,” she says. “I’m just anti-complaining. Sure, your knee aches, but you can still get around. Sure, you didn’t sleep well, but hardly anyone sleeps well. Pull your shoulders back, lift your head high and accentuate the positive.”

There’s enough tea in the pot for a second cup. It really is delicious, and somehow better for the way I imagined out loud the circumstances in which it was picked and how the milk might have been produced.

The sunlight streams in, and I find myself humming a happy tune.

Then a horrific thought intrudes: The improvement in my outlook means that Jocasta has been proved right! As the Scandinavian Journal of Pain might put it: “Arrrgggghhhh!”

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