To Complain, or Not to Complain?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve started to feel like I’ve been doing a lot of complaining. From moaning about a particular person’s disrespectful behavior or something I read in the news to ranting about the person who cut me off in traffic and the grocery store’s inability to keep my favorite items in stock: You name it, I’ve probably complained about it. It came to a head after I finished reading aloud to my mother a person’s letter to the editor in the paper this weekend. (Pro tip: If you lean left and live in the south, do NOT read your newspaper’s letters to the editor.) Anyway, I was exasperated by this person’s willful ignorance on an issue I feel strongly about, and for some reason felt the need to share her words aloud, perhaps so someone could commiserate with me about the disturbing views we live amongst. Needless to say, sharing it did not make me feel better, but in fact, made me feel worse. I hated that I had spent precious moments of my life despairing about the views of a person who I will likely never meet, and thus, have little to no chance of converting to my own views, aka the “right views.” 😉 Essentially, what this experience taught me is that, for me at least, complaining is not always cathartic, and may in fact only make me feel negative and helpless.

I vowed then and there to stop complaining.

And five minutes later, I complained again.

I got back on the wagon, but have repeatedly fallen off, catching myself complaining multiple times in the days since. Turns out, not complaining is HARD, y’all! It wouldn’t be so hard, except I find that people are just constantly doing inane things that merit complaint! And to be honest, sometimes it does feel good to vent about their ineptitude.

Curious about this issue, I decided to look up “effects of complaining” online. Apparently, a lot of other people have investigated this issue, as scores of sites came up with titles ranging from “How negativity and complaining literally rot your brain” and “How complaining rewires your brain for negativity” to “Complaining, for your health” and “Quit complaining – it may make you feel worse.” Many of the articles I turned up supported my own experience — that sometimes complaining feels good, and sometimes it doesn’t. The key, it seems, is in learning how to complain. Didn’t know complaining was an art form? Read on.

Essentially, without going into all the details, complaining just for complaining’s sake, without any chance of effecting any change is usually detrimental to one’s health. It prompts release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can raise blood pressure and over time set you up for problems with high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and may even make your brain more vulnerable to strokes. Like second hand smoke, even just being on the receiving end of another person’s complaints can be damaging. Aside from impacting our physical health, ineffective complaining also often leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and pessimistic about our situation and life in general.

On the contrary, complaining done right can be good for us. Effective complaining that actually gets results can be empowering and uplifting. Even if it doesn’t achieve results, sometimes just getting things out is helpful, as keeping things pent up inside has been linked with long-term stress and related health issues. The key, I think, is to complain mindfully. Before you open your mouth to complain, ask yourself what your goal is. Do you want to change something? If so, do something to change it! (In the Atlantic article linked to above, the researcher quoted suggests that the most effective complaining uses facts and logic, has a desired outcome in mind, and is directed at someone who has the authority to make it happen.) Do you just need to vent? If so, let it out and then move on. Or are you just wanting to whine and drone on and on about something you have no chance of affecting? In which case, perhaps it’s best to just accept that some things in life are upsetting, let it go, and move on to better things.

Which is all just to say: Good news for me. I don’t have to give up complaining after all. I just have to get better at it.







On Un-doing, and feeding the right wolf


“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”



I’ve been thinking lately of how so much in life comes from not doing rather than doing. We think we have to achieve, perform, or accumulate in order to be happy, content, and/or successful. Or that we have to accomplish x amount of tasks in order to “be a good person.” We’re always looking for that magical thing we can do to make everything be okay.

But the truth is, we’re already okay. Just as we are. In fact, it’s only when we allow all of those fake trappings of accomplishments and possessions to fall away that our true selves can really shine through. I picture a snake shedding its skin, or a statue’s exterior crumbling away to reveal a more beautiful and authentic core.

In the same way, I’m finding that only when I remember to slow down and take regular pauses during my busy, task-oriented days (I am a graduate student, after all), am I really able to remember what really matters to me and appreciate the beauty that is always here. I was reading an article on earlier today, that made the point that suffering is all around us. BUT, so is joy. And that everything we really need to be happy is right here with us in every moment. It’s just that our brains are biased toward negativity. As I’ve heard Dr. Rick Hanson put it, it’s like they’re teflon for good and velcro for bad. So in order to not be swept away by the negativity that inevitably creeps in, we have to make a conscious effort to notice the good things and hold them close.

I’m reminded of the Native American legend about the two wolves. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

So my challenge lately has been to make sure I’m feeding the right wolf. As much as I hate to admit, I’ve been catching myself with some regularity at feeding the evil wolf. The news will come on, and there I go, fanning the flames of some perceived injustice. Or someone will say something that annoys me, and I’ll continue the story inside my head of how inconsiderate, thoughtless, and rude that person is. It’s a real challenge to stop sometimes! Getting angry or feeling superior are powerful emotions and can be addictive at times. But for the most part, they don’t do anyone any good. So when I notice myself feeding that evil wolf scraps, I pull my hand away, as hard as it may be, and try to turn my attention to more constructive things. We need more good wolves in this world of ours. We have more than enough evil ones already.

So if you must do something today, make it feeding the good wolf inside of you.

Thoughts on Thinking

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

-William Shakespeare

I think a lot. I am a human, after all. And thinking is what has enabled our species to reach the great heights it has. No other species can think, analyze, and evaluate to the degree that humans can. But thinking is a double-edged sword. Especially when our thoughts aren’t always even true. Heck, sometimes, our thoughts aren’t even entirely in our control. I read something Byron Katie once said along the lines of “we don’t think, we’re thought,” which I think nails it. It’s like our brains control us much of the time rather than the other way around.  That’s one reason I like meditation so much, because I feel like it helps me to get a better handle on my thoughts and not be such a slave to them. Because dammit if those little buggers aren’t trouble makers.

If you think about it, (ironic, I know) thinking is what perpetuates a lot of our discomfort. When you’re stressed out, anxious, upset — it’s your thoughts that are causing that. You’re telling yourself some kind of story about what has happened, or what you think might happen, and it’s upsetting. But what if you stopped the waterfall of thoughts? Either cut them off outright or paused and questioned them. I was listening to a Tara Brach talk the other day in which she encouraged us to “not believe the thoughts; just feel the feelings” and it’s really stuck with me. I’ve tried it out a few times since and it’s been immensely helpful. It’s incredible the space that opens up when you let your thoughts go and just sit with what’s left. It turns out that what’s left isn’t nearly as bad as your thoughts might have you believe. In fact, there’s evidence that emotions don’t last any longer than 90 seconds. The only reason we remain angry or upset for longer than that is likely because we’re feeding our emotions with our thoughts. Just fanning the flames. So next time you find yourself spinning off into dangerous thinking territory, try to stop yourself. Some thoughts are like animals in a zoo. It’s not good to feed them 😉



It’s not Donald Trump that worries me

I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump a lot lately. With all the coverage he gets in the media, it’s been hard not to.

At the beginning of the presidential primaries, I didn’t really give him much thought. If anything, I thought his presence as a candidate might be a little amusing. As I began to learn more about him and hear some of the things he was saying, I became a little disturbed, but not worried. “People will see right through him,” I thought. “He won’t last long once people actually start to vote…”

After he won the first couple of states, my optimistic self thought it must just be some kind of a fluke. But the more delegates he wins, and the more incendiary his rhetoric becomes, the more bothered I am. Forget the fact that he has absolutely zero platform and has given basically no details about how he plans to actually accomplish any of the things he talks about. That I could deal with. That’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is how critical he’s been about entire swaths of the population, how he encourages people at his rallies to engage in violence, and how he childishly bullies anyone who dares say anything remotely critical of him. Not to mention his pumped up view of himself and his inability to take responsibility. This man, people, is not fit to be president. Not of the United States, and not of anything else. What he is, is a narcissist, a bully, and a racist. Even children watching the Republican debates recognize this. Why don’t his supporters?

And that, my friends, is what bothers me the most. Because the more I think about it, it’s actually not Donald Trump that concerns me. It’s all the people who support him. All the people who approve of what he says and who agree with his hate filled ideas and words. Donald Trump didn’t insert their hate into them; he’s just the flame that lit the fuel on fire.

Living in the little bubble that I do, I wasn’t aware of how much hate had been simmering beneath the surface of our great nation. Oh sure, I know prejudice exists and that people can be nasty. But I had no idea it was at the level I’ve seen demonstrated lately. I was watching footage of one of Trump’s rallies the other day, and some of the things I heard coming out of people’s mouths directed at his protesters were downright nasty. Maybe I’m naïve, but I thought we’d made more progress than that.

Apparently not. Apparently people are really angry, and we’ve just been sitting on a volcano ready to blow this whole time. What got us here? Was it the police shootings in the past couple of years or does it go back further? Was it the economic crises we’re still struggling to fully recover from? I really don’t know. I just know that what I’m seeing and hearing is really, really, really upsetting, and I’m afraid that it’s not going to just go away.

Unless we do something. It’s time for those of us who aren’t filled with hate to step up and use our voices in a constructive way. What that will look like will be unique to everyone, but if you’re reading this and you, too, are concerned about the direction this primary is taking our country, please speak up. Vote in your state’s primary. Write letters to the editor. Talk to your friends. Smile at a stranger. Help a neighbor. If you hear someone say something racist, call them on it. We have to fight the hatred that’s threatening to tear us down. Don’t feel like your voice is insignificant. It isn’t. I keep thinking of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So get out there and spread the love people. It’s the only weapon we have left. Because getting rid of Donald Trump will not fix things. He’s already unleashed the dragon, and the dragon is us.

Eric Garner, Martin Luther King, and Starfish

In the wake of the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the grand jury’s decision not to indict the policeman responsible for Eric Garner’s death in New York City, I feel compelled to write. First, though, I’m not here to wax poetically about racial justice or police brutality. That’s been done enough. Nor am I here to condemn or condone any of the actions following either decision. That’s been covered, too.

What I am here to do is to convey my deepest sadness at the loss of two lives, as well as the needless destruction that occurred afterward. But I don’t just weep for Brown and Garner and their respective families — I weep also for Darren Wilson, who was forced to resign without severance right as his wife is about to give birth. I weep for the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, whose town has been turned upside down in the blink of an eye. I weep for those policeman everywhere who are well-meaning, upstanding citizens, but who will now be looked on with suspicion and derision by a large segment of the population. I weep for those who don’t feel safe when policeman are around, but instead feel fear, and often rightfully so.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, in situations like this, no one comes out on top. We all lose. I’ll admit, even as a white female, I don’t feel comfortable in a society where a policeman can strangle a man and not be held accountable. That’s not the kind of world I want to live in.

So what can I do? What can little old me, living in a red state in the deep south, do in instances like this? Admittedly, for the last few days I’ve felt helpless. And detached. Many days the news leaves me wanting to bury my head in my hands and pretend none of this shit is happening.

But it is. That’s the truth. It happens EVERY DAY. All around the world. TRAGEDIES HAPPEN EVERY DAY.

But do you know what else? SO DO MIRACLES.

It sounds cliché, but it’s the honest truth. Case in point: Almost immediately after the looting and rioting occurred across St. Louis, scores of online fundraising sites popped up to help raise money for the innocent shop owners whose livelihoods were threatened. Donations poured in, and people were able to start rebuilding and resume work.

And I’m sure you’ve all seen this photo that’s been making the rounds, of a young boy and a police officer hugging in the midst of a protest.


THAT’S how we respond. THAT’S what Martin Luther King meant when he famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

So in the wake of tragedy, what do we do? We love. We shine our light into the darkness and we offer one another a hand. And while at times our circumstances may seem overwhelming, I always remember the story of the boy walking along the beach, tossing washed up starfish back into the ocean one by one. Even though the beach is littered with starfish, he keeps working his way down the beach. When a man stops him and asks him why he bothers — that he can’t possibly make a difference when there is so much to be done — the boy reaches down, picks up another starfish and tosses it into the ocean, replying: “It made a difference to that one.”

So instead of getting on Facebook or social media and joining the shouting and arguing over “who’s right and who’s wrong” in instances like these, why not be a part of the solution? If we each throw back a starfish, we’ll have this beach cleared off in no time.


The Fire Within

The Fire Within

An angry storm blew in today

and knocked me to the ground.

I tried to find my bearings

but nothing could be found.


It howled and cursed and grumbled–

hurled hailstones at my feet.

My attempts to rise were futile, I

prepared to admit defeat


The road is slick with raindrops

The path is strewn with stones

I crash to earth with violence

No one around to hear my moans.


The waves they keep on crashing

The rain keeps pouring down

The current keeps on pulling

til I don’t know up from down.


Fields of hidden land mines

Rooms fashioned of trap doors

Each time I step through one of them

frustration seeping out my pores.


The clouds roll in with fury

as I cower in the night

Yearning to lay my head down

Ready to cede the fight.


But something burns inside my heart

a yearning deep and true

A will to live that won’t be silenced

and I know I’m not yet through


I rise amid the rubble

Stand up straight and tall

But no sooner had I risen

than down again I fall


The wind is howling louder now

There’s static in the air

I’m not sure I can stand my ground

Not sure that I care


Angry gusts lash at my bones

I’m frozen to the core

My heart just isn’t in it

I can’t take this anymore.


But something stirs inside my soul

A flame housed deep within

A passion lights its embers

And I get back up again.


Along the way I stumble,

plummet to the rocks below

My ego bruised and broken

This time I’ll not get up again, I know.


But as I lay there in the cold

something flickers through my veins

A warmth spreads up inside my chest

And I see the sparks of flame


So on I go into the night

not certain of the path

And sure enough before too long

I fall victim to the wrath


It’s a puzzle I don’t stay there

curled up on the ground

Secure in my insecurity

Safe from being sound


But if the past is any indication

I won’t be down for long

One more time I’ll strike the match

Light that fire strong


For just when I think my will is broken,

That there’s no strength left inside

That flame inside me flickers

And I get back up to fight


So as I head out on my journey

Uncertain of the end

I’m not afraid of what I’ll find there.

I have a fire deep within.


©Jennifer K. Horton



Thoughts on Being “Productive”

When I was younger, I did things just for the heck of it. I did things because they were fun and brought me pleasure. I played outside, goofed off with friends and watched The Smurfs, My Little Pony and He-Man on television. I didn’t worry about whether these things were making me a better person or were “good” for me, I just did them because I wanted to. But somewhere along the way, I stopped. I stopped letting joy be my guide and instead started to use guilt and ‘shoulds’. My earliest memory of this is when my parents were going out of town for a lengthy trip, leaving me and my siblings at home with my grandparents. Knowing that I would have a hard time without her there, my mother left me a well-meaning note encouraging me to engage in “constructive” activities to help pass the time. Somehow, I translated that message to mean “always engage in constructive activities” and ever since, I’ve been incredibly focused on engaging in activities that society generally views as productive. Now, I often feel like if I read, it needs to be something that will educate and enlighten me. If I play a game, it should be one that has a side benefit of increasing my brain power. In short, I should spend all of my waking hours engaged in activities that will serve to improve me in some way. This obviously leaves little time for relaxation and fun, even though research shows those things are necessary for well being also.

Studies show watching He-Man improves brain power... ;)

Studies show watching He-Man improves brain power… 😉

Sadly, I don’t think this little hang up of mine is uncommon. I think society in general places an undue amount of importance on things like working, making money and being busy. This strict work ethic is so ingrained that even when our employers offer us time off, we refuse to take it: According to the U.S. Travel Association, 40 percent of Americans don’t take all of their vacation, leaving 430 million days of unused paid vacation a year. That’s a lot of time that people could have spent relaxing on the beach. Essentially, 40 percent of Americans are saying they’d rather sit at their desks than in a lounge chair. There’s something not quite right about that.

But what can we do about it? How to break free of a culture that equates productivity with working hard? How to move away from using how much a person earns and how hard they work to determine their worth? Aren’t we so much more than that? If being a good person relied only upon how hard a person worked, terrorists would be saints. Don’t they work hard? Hitler would have been idolized. He worked pretty darn hard too. But it doesn’t work that way. Who we are as people is so much more than what we do for a living and how hard we do it. Who we are lies in our hearts. It’s in how we treat people. And that includes how we treat ourselves.

I wouldn’t for a minute consider telling the young, carefree me to stop goofing off. And I don’t think her childhood would have been any better if it had been more structured and packed with enrichment activities like violin lessons, soccer practice and afterschool meetings with the math and science club. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but they wouldn’t have been fun for her. She enjoyed her childhood just the way it was, and she deserved to. As every child does.

As I sit here thinking about it today, I think we could all learn a lot from observing children like her. In fact, I think our standard definition of productive is way off. And while I’m tempted to try to cobble a new one together real quick to guide us in a better direction, I think it would likely be equally off. Why? Because productive can mean different things for different people. What’s productive for me might not be productive for you. We’re all individuals with different needs and different goals in life, and it is these unique goals and needs that should determine our actions. Not society.

So if you need a nap today, take one. If work emails are stressing you out, turn off your computer. If you want to lounge around and watch cartoons or read a silly romance novel, by all means, do it. And for goodness sake, make plans to use up some of those 430 million vacation days, because at the end of the day, are you really going to look back on your life and be grateful for all the days you were “productive”? Or are you going to look back and treasure all the days you spent living your life in a way that brought you joy?