Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

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Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

How Depression Feels

I feel like there’s a disease in my head. I want to excise the brain parts that it lives in, the parts responsible for loneliness, worthlessness, apathy, cynicism, seriousness, sensitivity, and all the other ways in which I could be described.

I feel like a book lying open on the grass. The wind blows the pages around and one can’t help but read them. Nothing that’s written can ever be forgotten.

I feel like I’ve wound up my body’s pocket watch all wrong. It doesn’t go at the same pace as everyone else’s. Sometimes it ticks when it shouldn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t when it should. Where is that damn watchmaker?

I feel like a sinking ship. All of my most beautiful parts are underwater now, my framework waterlogged and rotting. Up on the tilting deck, an orchestra plays for anyone who dares to listen.

I feel like there’s a darkness following me wherever I go. Some call it a black dog, others call it a raincloud, others call it the noonday demon. Sometimes we sit on a bench next to each other, just gazing out into the world through our foggy, listless eyes. When it’s with me, I see in black and white.

I feel like a piece of driftwood on a beach. Why am I here, and not there? Is this sandy spot any better than that one?

I feel like there’s another spirit inside me and it’s more compassionate and optimistic and hopeful than I’ve ever been able to be.

I feel like there’s a flood slamming against the levee walls of my brain.

I feel like there’s a screeching phoenix beating in my heart, trying to burn a hole in the scarred tissue and escape.

I feel like I’m moments, or days, or years away from coming alive. It’ll happen, someday.

Winter/Summer

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s already summer.

The signs are all there–I can wear my favorite clothes again, I keep my windows open, and the humid air envelops me and makes me feel safe, even at night. There are packing boxes everywhere and the dorms are slowly emptying out…

But in my mind, I’m stuck in January, when everything fell apart again. The heat outside can’t touch that feeling.

I wish I could pack that into one of my cardboard boxes and send it all away.

There is a quote by Albert Camus that I love, and that has provided me with a lot of inspiration along the way: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Well, for me, at least right now, it’s the opposite.