KANSAS CITY, MO. - We all complain, right? It’s just human nature. But a few months ago, the pastor of a Kansas City church told the people in his congregation he wanted them to break that habit.
“The one thing we can agree on,” said the Reverend Will Bowen of Christ Church Unity, “is there’s too much complaining.”
He said churchgoers were griping mainly about trivial things, such as the choice of hymns at the Sunday service or the informal dress code at the church’s Saturday night worship.
And so he asked his flock to take a pledge: to swear off complaining, criticizing, gossiping or using sarcasm for 21 days. The Rev. Bowen said the inspiration for the no-complaints campaign came to him while taking a shower. And now, the idea has begun to spread far beyond middle America.
People who join in are issued little purple bracelets as a reminder of their pledge. If they catch themselves complaining, they’re supposed to take off the bracelet, switch it to the opposite wrist and start counting the days from scratch.
And now that the church has been written up in several publications, the campaign has mushroomed. On Saturdays, volunteers crowd the church basement filling orders for the no-complaints bracelets, 126,000 so far.
I wondered how hard it would be, so I put on one of the bracelets and started counting the days. And I didn’t complain when my TODAY show producer mounted a camera in my office to record my every working moment, trying to catch me in the act of griping about something or other. (It turns out it’s the same equipment that “Dateline NBC” uses on its “To Catch a Predator” segments.)
It only took two hours for the camera to catch a complainer — me — when my computer crashed and I uttered an expletive that we won’t repeat here. Then, after work that day, I caught myself complaining about a news item I heard on the radio on the drive home. Day one ended with two relapses.
Day two, I complained about my shoulder hurting. (No, I didn’t wrench it switching that bracelet back and forth.) I was discovering what everyone who takes the pledge finds out: that going 21 days without complaining isn’t as easy as it seems at first blush.
The Rev. Bowen said it took him three and a half months to put together 21 complaint-free days, and that it has taken others up to seven months. Those who get through it can turn in their bracelets in exchange for “certificates of happiness” issued during church services.
“We’re going to be the center of no complaining around the world,” said the Rev. Bowen, who added that they’ve gotten requests for bracelets from as far away as South Africa and Australia. Some American troops in Iraq, a place where there are plenty of things to complain about, have even asked for them. The church has set up a Web site, acomplaintfreeworld.org, to facilitate orders for bracelets, offered free of charge.
The Rev. Bowen figures that if the average person complains 20 times a day for 30 days, the 126,000 bracelets have stopped millions and millions of complaints. “That’s a lot less ear pollution,” he said, grinning.
“My life is a whole lot better than it was six months ago,” said church volunteer Patricia Platt. A teacher, she decided to ask her grade school pupils to take the no-complaints pledge along with her.
“It was really hard for me,” said a boy in her classroom, “because I’ve got two sisters, one twelve and one thirteen and they are both,” he paused and sighed, “really mean!”
Indeed, as we spoke to the children in the classroom, they often cited sibling rivalries as a big stumbling block. But Mrs. Platt said most of the children have successfully completed the 21 days.
“I think we learn to complain as we get older,” she said, noting that it took her four months to fulfill the pledge, while her pupils did it a lot faster.
Experts disagree about whether suppressing complaints is good for one’s mental health. “If people don’t need to complain, don’t want to, then great,” said Barbara Held, a psychologist and author of the book, “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching.” “But if they do, there are ways to do it more productively and more beneficially and what’s wrong with that?”
But the Rev. Bowen believes that tamping down the urge to complain is akin to successful anger management. “You catch yourself not articulating these negative thoughts that are in your head,” he said, “and because there’s no place for that to flow, they tend to dry up.”
I’m still waiting for those negative thoughts to dry up. As of this writing, I’ve had eight relapses, with my longest complaint-free period lasting five days. I’m continuing the effort as I head off to Israel on assignment and will keep you posted if and when I make it to the 21-day mark.