Talking of One's Ailments
J. R. Miller, 1902
Some people seem to enjoy being miserable. At least, they make far more of life's discomforts, than of its pleasant things. They say very little about their mercies—but a great deal about their miseries. When you meet them some bright morning, and ask, "How are you today?" you will have to listen to a long recital of personal ills; and you will escape well if you are not favored also with a dismal catalogue of the distresses and sufferings of all the members of your friends' family! You learn by and by, if you are a busy person—not to make inquiries which will lead to such extended confessions of wretchedness.
These people seem to think there is some sort of merit in having ailments or afflictions to speak of to others. It appears to them to be an altogether undesirable and unworthy state to be in; when they can say that they are very well, with nothing to complain of. They appear to be happy—only when something is wrong with them—so that they can make appeal to the sympathy of their friends.
What is the real secret of the commonness the almost universality, of this habit of mind? For it must be confessed that there are comparatively few people with whom one meets, who are not addicted to this unwholesome way of talking about their ills and ailments—whether real or imaginary. What is the motive for it? Why does it appear to give so much pleasure? Is it prompted by an unhealthy craving for sympathy? One who is always well, and who never complains—is not commiserated. Nobody says, "How pale you look! I am very sorry you are such a sufferer"; and many people seem to find great comfort in being pitied in this way. They would rather have others speak to them of their ailments—than of their fine health!
But the best that can be said about such a craving, is that it is miserably unwholesome. It is exaggerated selfishness, too, which takes delight in burdening others with the recital of all one's little bodily pains or discomforts—how many hours one lay awake last night, what a hard cough one has, how one's head ached all the morning, how one suffers from rheumatism or neuralgia, how one's digestion has been bad for a week—and the endless catalogue of ills to which flesh is heir!
Suppose you did have a restless night, or did cough for hours, or were nervous; or suppose you have pains in your back or in you head, or have a heavy cold—why must you go over all the details of your wretchedness in talking with anyone you can get, to listen to the recital? What good comes of speaking about these unpleasant things?
The fact is, that people do not like to hear such unwholesome complaining, unless they are given to the same morbid habit themselves, and can get you to listen sympathetically to their story, which they will probably try to make more morbid than yours! There really is no virtue in being miserable! It is far better to be well and strong. Then, even if one has actual infirmities, aches, or disorders of any kind—one has no right to display them before others; one would far better endure the discomfort silently—and be sweet, brave, and cheerful in the presence of one's friends and neighbors.
It is immeasurably better to talk about the ten thousand comforts, blessings, and pleasures of one's life—than about the few pains and miseries. It is better for one's self; for we are building character out of our habits, and we would better build into our life the gold and silver and precious stones of good cheer—than the wood, hay, and stubble of miserable morbidity. It is better, too, for the world; for it has real troubles enough of its own, and needs far more our songs—than our sorrows.
A writes gives this incident, which is in the line of what has been written: The principal of a girls' school once administered an effective rebuke to a pupil who was always complaining of her ailments. This student came to school one morning whining about a "dreadful cold." The teacher said cheerfully, "Oh, I'm so glad you have one!" Naturally the girl was astonished; but the wise woman continued, "Why shouldn't I be glad? You are always doing something to make yourself ill; so, of course, you must enjoy it, and I am happy to have you pleased!"
This stinging sarcasm opened the girl's eyes to the knowledge that she herself was responsible, to a large extent, for her own bodily conditions; and that it was a reflection upon her intelligence, as well as her conscience, thus to ignore the laws of physical health. No sane person ever points with pride to the existence in himself of mental defects arising from neglect of intellectual culture. Yet it is nothing uncommon for one to pose as an object of sympathy when ill, from failure to exercise common sense in simple matters of diet and exercise. Moreover, it is an offence against good breeding—to parade one's distempers before others!
Emerson says on this same subject: "If you have not slept well, or if you have a headache, or sciatica, or leprosy, or any other ailment—I beseech you to hold your peace!"
There is a better way—it is to seal one's lips resolutely upon all words of complaining about one's self, all talking about one's discomforts or ailments. Nobody is really interested in such recital; no one enjoys listening to it. Even those who patiently hear your anguishing tale—do so only out of amiable courtesy. Speak only of the bright and cheerful things in your life. Tell others of your thousand mercies—and not of your one or two miseries. Find the pleasant things, and talk of these, rather than of the painful things. You have no right to add to the world's disquietude, by pouring out your story of woes—whether real or imagined. Give out cheer and gladness instead, and breathe out song.
It was said of a beautiful Christian woman, beside her coffin, that wherever she went—the air was sweeter after she had gone by. It is such an influence we should all seek to leave behind us wherever we go. To do this we must train ourselves to deny our own selfishness, to repress our discontents, to bear in silence the trials and sufferings of our life, to endure in sweet patience—the things that are disagreeable and unpleasant, and to give out to others and to the world—only sweetness and light, however keen our own pain—or heavy our burden!