How to Teach Your Children
Not to Complain
Why this story matters
(commentary on Numbers 11)
(Page 3 of 4)
Getting back to the illustrated story, when the people complain for the second time about the lack of meat, we see Yahweh sounding more like a petulant parent than a perfect being. It’s as if a child asked for ice cream too many times and the parent made the child eat ice cream till it was sick: “Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it” (Num. 11:18-20). Unfortunately the children in this case don’t just get sick. They get killed. I don’t know of any parents who would teach their children lessons by killing thir siblings. If you know of any, call your local department of child services.
Oddly, though, when Moses complains in the same chapter, he get's sympathy from Yahweh. He first accuses his god of treating him “harshly”, and asks what he’s done to deserve this burden. He is so unhappy that he tells Yahweh if this is the way it’s going to be then he’d rather Yahweh just killed him: “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now” (11:15). Then, when God tells Moses the people will eat meat that evening, Moses doubts it: “But Moses said, "Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, 'I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!” (11:21). Apparently, when Moses complains, or doubts his god's power, it's different. Yahweh sympathizes with him and tells him to gather 70 “leaders” to whom he will give some of Moses’ spirit so that they can help out. Now why can't he adopt a similar disposition towards the common people? Why can't he be more empathetic about the human penchant for complaining?
The truth is that complaining is perfectly normal. And the conditions that the Israelites were living under would have been arduous. It actually would have been strange if they hadn't complained. It's what humans do and there's good reason for it.
Why we complain
Although complaining hasn’t been studied much, some work has been done by social psychologist Robin Kowalski who wrote the book Complaining, teasing, and other annoying behaviors. Kowalski identifies two types of complaints: instrumental and expressive. Instrumental complaints are designed to bring about change, while expressive complaints are designed merely to elicit empathy and understanding. Kowalski eschews the idea that complaining is necessarily a negative thing. For example, it serves as a way to connect humans. Complaints are good ice breakers in social gatherings: "We start a conversation with a negative observation because we know it will get us a bigger response than saying something positive would."
Barbra Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, says that the pop culture mandate to smile and say “have a nice day” is unrealistic. Unfortunately for the people in our story, Held and Kowalski hadn't written their books yet, so Yahweh hadn't had a chance to read them. Had he done so, he may have had a little more empathy for normal, every day human frailties.