A few weeks ago I received a book in the mail from Rev. Will Bowen. He is the pastor at Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, and he lives out in the countryside not too far from Branson, MO. Rev. Bowen is a former radio announcer, salesman and marketing exec. He has appeared on Oprah, the Today Show and a host of other broadcasts. He preaches every Sunday at his Unity church. For those of you unfamiliar with Unity, it seems to sit somewhere between Disciples of Christ and Unitarianism theologically, and somewhere between megachurches and New Age communities sociologically.
The book came with a light purple rubber wrist band that I was to wear continually if I wanted to participate in the program promoted by Mr. Bowen's accompanying book. Conveniently, it was stamped with the name of Mr. Bowen's web site, which is the same as Mr. Bowen's book title. As it happens, it is also the name of this sermon.
The book is called A Complaint Free World, and here it is. And I am sure you are sensing from me, two brief paragraphs into these remarks, that I am a little cynical about the entire endeavor. Mr. Bowen's idea is intriguing: we complain too much, and it brings down the quality of our lives. The notion is consistent with one of the principles of Unity, which is that our thoughts create our realities. So, reasons Mr. Bowen, if we could just stop complaining so much, we would live in a personal world transformed. And if everyone would stop complaining so much, we would live in a whole world entirely transformed.
To that end, he provides the purple bracelet to anyone who asks. The idea is that you put the bracelet on your wrist, and any time a complain issues from your mouth, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal is to keep the bracelet on the same wrist for 21 consecutive days, no matter how long it takes you to get there – he claims it is usually about four months. He is quite proud of the fact that so far six million people have received the bracelets with a pledge to stop complaining, an unfortunate statistic if he is trying to make inroads in the Jewish community, which associates six million people who have stopped complaining with anything but a better world.
To be fair to Mr. Bowen, he is very specific that there are complaints, and then there are complaints. He is not suggesting that if you bring your car in to have a headlight replaced and they replace the wrong headlight that you do not bring it to the attention of the manager. Similarly, if you order a steak medium-well and you receive rare tuna, and the vegan wait person says, "What's the difference, they are both murdered animals," you have a right to complain about a variety of things. No, Mr. Bowen is talking about sniping and carping and gossiping and criticizing and name-calling and all sorts of things that we all agree are almost always inappropriate except, of course, when they are entirely justified.
In other words, when Mr. Bowen uses the word "complaint," he really means "kvetch."
Don't worry, I'll explain.
Mr. Bowen, as I mentioned, lives near Branson, MO, which may be the very heart of the heartland. On the other side of the universe, in the Jewish neighborhood of the city of Toronto, lives an author and performer who was raised in the rich and rarified world of Yiddish culture. His name is Michael Wex, and he, too, has written a book, though it was not sent to me for free. The book is about Yiddish language and culture in all of its moods. It is called Born to Kvetch, and this is it.
In order to introduce the non-Yiddish-speaking reader to the concept of kvetching, he tells this story: An old man is sitting a train and he begins moaning: Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty. Another passenger, trying to catch a nap, quickly reaches the end of his patience, and in an attempt to salvage the peace and quiet of the ride, he walks to the end of the car and retrieves not one, but two paper cups filled with water. Returning carefully to the seat with the old man, he wordlessly hands him the first cup. The old man's eyes gleam with gratitude and he swallows all the water in one gulp. Before he can catch a breath, the other man hands him the second cup, turns around and takes his seat, settling in for his nap. A moment later, the old man heaves a sigh and says: Oy, was I thirsty.
Kvetching is not mere complaining, like the headlight or the tuna. Kvetching is a world-view that knows neither thirst nor satiation, frustration nor fulfillment, disappointment nor delight. Wex – calling him Mr. Wex would give him nothing to kvetch about – calls it seeing the world through cataract-colored glasses. He claims that Yiddish culture figured out a way to express contentment by complaint – kvetching allows a small measure of control over a hostile world. In fact, he says, if the Rolling Stones spoke Yiddish, the name of their song would be "I Love to Keep Telling You I Can't Get No Satisfaction Because Telling You I'm Not Satisfied Is All that can Satisfy Me." It would have been a very different song.
Mr. Bowen's book and Wex's book are on opposite ends of a continuum. I suspect that the Jews in the room locate themselves hard to the kvetch. But I suspect that the non-Jews in the room find Mr. Bowen's complaint-free world more appealing, even if they believe they could not do the 21 days necessary for citizenship.
But Jack, you are thinking, Jack! Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, a day filled with gratitude for the bounty bestowed upon us by our Creator! Tonight is the continuation of a tradition that stretches back thirty years or more, a tradition of smiling with satisfaction at the blessing of worshipping together, elevated by the warmth and personal connection that our congregations share with each other. Jack, SURELY you are not going to try to persuade us TONIGHT that it is better to be shrayen and shvitzn and krikhn and krekhtsn – even if you have no idea what I just said, you get it.
Of course not! Please do not show up at your holiday table tomorrow and start moaning, Oy, am I thirsty! But I hope to make the case, in the next very few minutes, that there is a reason that Thanksgiving comes but once a year and not twenty-one days in a row – which would wipe out the American economy – and that our expressions of appreciation for the world of blessings we enjoy are meaningful only in the context of that hostile world about which we kvetch.
And my proof text comes from the Bible. The Bible, as Wex and others point out, is the record of the history of kvetching. The snake kvetches to Eve. God kvetches about humanity before the flood. Sarah kvetches about Hagar. Rebecca kvetches about the twins. The brothers kvetch about Joseph. Pharaoh kvetches about the Israelites, the Israelites kvetch about Pharaoh, Moses kvetches about his speech impediment, and the freed slaves kvetch about food, shelter, the amount of time Moses is on the mountain, ferocious enemies, the condition of the Promised Land and how good they had it when they were slaves. And I am convinced that when the Israelites kvetched to Moses for the umpti-umpth time that they were thirsty, after he struck the rock and water gushed out, they called out in unison, Oy, were we thirsty.
The prophets kvetched, Ecclesiastes kvetched, and don't think the disciples didn't kvetch about things like "how are we supposed to feed all these people?" In fact, I do not think that Jesus declaimed, as if he were Will Bowen, "One of you will betray me this night." He was a Jew. I am certain he said, "One of you will be-TRAY me tonight...."
Listen, just because the Book of Job enshrines kvetching for eternity does not mean we have to adopt it as a life-style. But by the same token, I don't want you to be bribed by a free bracelet into giving up an important and essential aspect of living a full human life, a life that enables us to stop for a day and take stock of the wonders and miracles for which we give thanks.
"Out of my depths I call to You; Lord, hear my cry, heed my plea. Be attentive to my prayers, to my sigh of supplication!" That is how our Scriptural reading begins, those are the opening words of Psalm 130. A kvetch! I cry, I sigh, because there is so much in my life, in this world that sinks me into the depths of despair.
I have no idea what King David meant when he wrote these words. But I wonder if I could have ever had the chutzpah – another good Yiddish word, the unmitigated gall – to make such a complaint. I have my health, I have my family, I have my friends, my home, my income, my job and citizenship in the United States of America. If the Bible didn't tell me so, why would I think to complain? Where's my kvetch?
It's a few blocks from here, just out of view, among our fellow residents of Alexandria who are relying on a soup kitchen for Thanksgiving turkey. It is a few miles from here in the District of Columbia among the residents who must take busses and subways to get to the grocery stores that will not build on every third corner in their neighborhoods. It is on the edge of the Gulf Coast, where a great American city still sits in soggy ruins. It is across an ocean where soldiers and citizens alike bear the burden of the horrors of war. It is at either end of this planet where icecaps melt as temperatures rise. If the Psalmist didn't remind me to complain on their behalf, if instead I switched my purple bracelet to my other wrist and burst into a chorus of "What a Wonderful World," who would hear their kvetch?
I am sure I am being unfair to Mr. Bowen. As I said, he doesn't tell us to stop complaining about things worth complaining about. He just wants us all to be nicer to each other. After all, in the words of Frank Burns, it's nice to be nice to the nice.
But I speak for myself, a Jew, and I am relatively certain for those of you of Christian faith as well, when I say that if it were not for my recognition of my kvetches, I could not say with the Psalmist, "My whole being waits for the Lord, with hope I wait for his word. I yearn for the Lord more eagerly than the guards who watch for the dawn watch for the dawn."
And while I could certainly stand to kvetch a little less and praise a little more – who among us couldn't – Thanksgiving stands in such stark relief for me precisely because it is not a twenty-one day experience.
Thanks for listening to my kvetch. I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving with nothing to kvetch about – savory stuffing, crisp green beans with those fried onions on top, pumpkin pie and, most of all, moist turkey. Because if the turkey is even a little too dry, Oy, will you be thirsty.