Complaining is my Default Setting

There’s a scene in The Matrix where Agent Smith is villain monologuing at Morpheus and he says:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.”

Obviously, this is a reference to the Garden of Eden and a number of other creation myths where original sin happens or escapes and humanity has to spend eternity making up for it. I’m not religious, so I don’t think that an all-powerful, all-controlling diety (religious or technological) is punishing us. But there does seem to be some sort of truth in what Agent Smith is saying about humans existing in a constant state of misery.

That sounds very cynical. And I know that there are plenty of people out there who have a brighter view of life and the world. But I also know how one can live in a perpetual state of low-grade misery because I seem to be doing it.

Now, there are legitimate reasons behind this, including but not limited to the world being on fire for the better part of the last six years. I guess your mileage may vary based on your political views here, but mine lead me to see that T—p getting elected started four years of extreme anxiety followed by things getting worse through COVID, attacks on human rights by the GOP (including my own governor), the continued rise of fascism, and ongoing economic issues. The constant attacks on people in my profession (both rhetorical and physical) don’t exactly help, either.

It’s hard not to be stressed these days and it’s very hard to be optimistic. Yet when I look at myself and why I am so miserable lately, I find a deeper cause that just [waves hand] all of this. That’s why I am thinking about that quote from The Matrix; even if the world was not on fire, I wonder if I could find a way to be happy. I think that being miserable and then complaining about it is my default setting.

I was telling my therapist about this a few days ago and I openly wondered when this switch got flipped. I don’t think I was a particularly miserable child. But somewhere along the line, I got it in my head that it was better to find fault, complain, and be critical about something than it was to express joy or happiness.

Reading that back, it sounds really fucked up. But when you think about it, there’s a lot of people who knowingly or unknowling subscribe to that idea. In some cases, I think it’s a defense mechanism. To quote Lloyd Dobler: “When you start out depressed, everything is a pleasant surprise.”

My generation in particular came of age in an age of cynicism and “detached cool.” The “whatever” of it all was way more palatable than, say, being happy about something. And being happy about or genuinely enjoying something was tagged as wholly lame or uncool. And when it comes to me? Well, combine both of those and you get someone who spent his late teens being critical of just about everything as a way to build a wall of protection. I didn’t want to get hurt or get my heart broken, even if it was when someone pointed out my lame pop culture choices. College only made it worse, what with pretentious professors and even more pretentious classmates who were working very hard to impress said pretentious professors. I found my joy in places but often did so in secret and felt like I had to apologize when I was discovered, especially if I liked someone that nobody around me found cool.

That stayed with me, especially through my twenties. I guess I never noticed how toxic that was because that was the early 2000s, a time when snarky was cool and contributed to perceived “wit.” Everyone has a take (okay, everyone still has a take) and “Sincerity is hard to pull off” was mine. I never looked like I was enjoying myself–very often I still don’t, for fear I’m going to be made fun of–and in every passing interaction, I felt the need to choose the answer to “How’s it going?” that’s the most neutral. That is, if I don’t start commiserating/complaining (again, ask my wife how much of this I’m doing lately).

Again, that sounds really fucked up. How does expressing happiness or joy become some form of weakness? Or something I feel I need permission to do?

That, by the way, also sounds like bullshit white privilege whining. I have no actual problems, so what the hell do I have to actually complain about? My complaining invalidates the actual hardships of others. And yes, maybe I should just suck it up and shut the fuck up.

But does that really solve anything? In fact, isn’t that how so many men get to places where they are bitter and miserable?

The other day, when my anxiety had triggered a string of complaining about the utter nonsense of my job and little things that were getting on my nerves (i.e., the same shit I always complain about), my wife pressed me to actually list things that made me happy. It was a wholly uncomfortable moment. I thought of several things, but felt almost a sense of embarrassment while telling her. I mean, I literally squirmed in my seat. Later, as I was puttering around and getting some chores done while listening to a podcast, it dawned on my that I genuinely like and find happiness with a lot of stuff. I sometimes even express that, but do so sheepishly, saying “I know it’s lame, but …”

Who is actually judging me in that moment? Who is going to look at me and say that’s lame? And why should I even care?

This post won’t end with a turn of the page/turning a corner/big revelation/important first step. Overcoming my default programming is not something I can do overnight. You don’t spend a good 25-30 years believing that happiness is dumb and then flip the switch back over. When I am in my joy, I still feel it pushing through a wall of snark and misery, and always fight thoughts of “Other people don’t want to/will feel bad if they see me like this, will make fun of me, or will think I’m a loser.” I’d like to enjoy moments without those intrusions and without apologizing for myself.

I’ll close with another saying. My friend Vanessa (who is no longer with us) once wrote me a letter from college where she said “It’s a lot of fun when everyone’s a dork of some sort or another.” I once had that as my email signature (back in the days when we had quotes for email sigs) and for a while, it became a mantra. Perhaps it’s a piece of this puzzle, the one that snaps into “find your joy,” the one that can help me shrug off the self-consciousness and reclaim what’s genuine.

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