To complain is to truly be alive

PHOTO: KAYE BLEGVAD/NYTIMES

It's like casting off the oppressive wool coat you've been buried under since October on that first truly beautiful warm April day.

There are so many things in daily life that cause me never-ending unease: waiting in the kind of loosely defined wraparound line at the department of motor vehicles that makes losing your place inevitable; self-service situations whose unmarked rules the savage among us approach Lord Of The Flies-style, leaving, say, the Starbucks condiment bar in complete disarray in their wake; holding my breath while hoping for the woman two stalls down to hurry up and leave as she hopes for me to hurry up and do the exact same thing.

Then there are the minor tragedies that cause me deep, unrelenting angst every moment I'm awake. I hate trying to sign a credit card slip that is so slippery the pen just leaves weird scratch marks as I melt into a molten puddle of anxiety because I'm holding up the line at the store. I hate when someone comes to my house unannounced and I have to sit real still in the corner of the room you can't see from the window because I don't want anyone to know what the cats and I wear when we watch TV.

I hate when I'm trying to walk into a building at the same time as another person and we both go through the "wait, I'm polite, too" motions that result in an awkward reach-in-and-retract dance that can come to an end only when one of us drops dead on the sidewalk. The potential for me to be utterly humiliated lies in wait around every corner of my life.

Which is why I love to complain.

Why are people so terrible at merging on the highway? When is my neighbour going to cut down that rotting tree limb or does it have to shatter my windshield before he notices how bad it's getting? How is it that my phone bill is this expensive every month? Where has Barack Obama been? Why does everyone pretend to be cool with splitting a huge bill when I just had club soda and you had four overpriced top-shelf cocktails, Kelly?

Being a person is terrible. And complaining about it is the purest, most soothing form of protest there is. Complaining feels so good. It's like casting off the oppressive wool coat you've been buried under since October on that first truly beautiful warm April day. Pointlessly yelling into the void about some minor injustice you've suffered is the perfect relief for the giant wave of anxiety crashing against your insides, a balm for the wounds that riding public transportation with people who don't use headphones while they listen to music can inflict upon your weary soul.

I spent 17 soul-crushing - I mean, backbone-strengthening? - years in customer service. Or, as I often lovingly refer to it, being held hostage as the helpless sounding board for people's misdirected rage. And then complaining about people's complaints to my friends over drinks at happy hour...

It doesn't even have to be verbal. The shared grimace and eye roll between me and the other woman who was inconvenienced by the oversize suitcase the man in Seat 3B tried to sneak past the flight attendant can feel better than a long hug. Complaining is a hot bath for your feelings.

I spent 17 soul-crushing - I mean, backbone-strengthening? - years in customer service. Or, as I often lovingly refer to it, being held hostage as the helpless sounding board for people's misdirected rage.

And then complaining about people's complaints to my friends over drinks at happy hour, where a tab full of half-priced margaritas bought me at least an hour of incredulous "And then can you believe that she had the nerve to say that?"

Fourteen of those years were spent manning the front desk of a suburban animal hospital, a place where puppies and kittens get their shots and also where a high school gym teacher once spent 15 minutes telling me how his taxes are too high. I sat 3m from the door, the first human most people encountered on a day they'd chosen to wrestle a cat into a homemade knit cardigan to get its teeth cleaned in December.

I wasn't really a person to them, I was a talking garbage can into which they could deposit their complaints - problems that had little to do either with me or with the overpriced foods no one was making them purchase for their US$2,500 purebred dogs.

I was a blank slate at which someone's sweet, cookie-baking grandmother could toss casual insults phrased as pleasant inquiries about the quality of my day. "Working hard?" she would ask, barely concealing her disdain at my half-empty coffee cup.

I understood what was up, though. Sometimes you just want to tell another person that your head hurts, and your lunch was cold, and the minivan broke down. It's another way to connect.

I have spent too long listening to other people's problems, though, to casually drop my own on the innocent bystander who just happens to be waiting for the same bus. Who is more deserving of the accumulated disappointments of my day, the 20-year-old UPS guy juggling my fragile packages and his hand-held computer on my porch in the rain or my friend's racist uncle prattling nonsensically on Facebook about the "boys" kneeling on the field?

This is the beauty of the time in which we live: Everything is terrible, no one is happy, and now we have more outlets than ever into which we can spew the litany of meaningless trespasses against us.

Complaining is like spreading lotion on dry skin, and 2017 has been the ashiest year in recent memory. There is more than ever to complain about and also more reason than ever to believe your complaints might actually do something.

Resist the urge to unload your economic anxieties on the dry cleaner and instead make a video about it or write one of those long statuses everyone is just going to scroll past anyway. Then, when you're all wrung out, when you feel that you don't have a single complaint left, dredge up a few more and call your member of Congress. That way you can at least try to turn your seething rage into affordable healthcare.

NYTIMES

• Samantha Irby is the author, most recently, of We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'To complain is to truly be alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe