Hillsdale students need to brag less and complain more.
Last week a freshman wandered into the Writing Center and we fell into a conversation about how she was enjoying her time at Hillsdale. Sometime later, she mentioned getting ice cream in AJ’s and feeling terrible about it. When I protested, she said something vague about how everyone else was studying and complaining about how much work they had.
Good Lord, I thought, freshmen feel like criminals when they have fun?
But the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was. Whenever people have fun, we wring the joy out of their smug faces by treating them to laundry lists of our problems. Meanwhile, we fluff our little egos, assuring ourselves that we are living our best, most miserable lives.
To set the record straight: I don’t mind complaining if it expresses pure, unadulterated misery. I don’t like listening to it, but at least it’s honest. My problem is with a specific type of complaining that isn’t actually complaining at all. It’s bragging disguised as complaining — an odious cousin of the “humble brag;” but instead of a false modesty, it’s a false misery.
Take a walk during hell week — or really anytime at all — and you’re almost guaranteed to overhear students competing over who is suffering the most. The conversation always goes something like this:
“Oh man, I haven’t slept in 24 hours.”
“If it makes you feel better (it probably won’t) I haven’t slept for two days. I don’t even remember what sleep is.”
“Oh. Well. I have so many papers. Like, four.”
“I feel that. I have to write six by Friday.”
Sometimes it seems like we can’t let anyone have a bad day without first rubbing their noses in how we are having a worse one.
We all sound like Dostoevsky characters — like miserable people having altogether too much fun being miserable. But here’s the catch: Like all good Dostoevskytes, we enjoy being miserable only when we are more miserable than everyone else, and students know it.
This becomes particularly toxic when people actually need sympathy.
Sometimes we need to commiserate about our collective misery. Sadly, the best way to do this is to complain.
Sympathy is the grease that keeps students functioning when they need to crank out papers and cram for exams. If one outlawed venting and complaining, the student union would be crushingly silent during finals week, and students would trundle around glowering in mute frustration.
And while no one likes listening to complaining, sometimes listening can be a gift, both to the unfortunate venter and the trapped listener.
It can remind the listener that even the seemingly-perfect student is human as well, and that no one on this campus is unique in having problems to sort out. As sleep-deprived students attempt to ease the woes of studying with other people’s sympathy, the last thing they need is to hear more complain-bragging.
I’m not asking Hillsdale students to stop complaining. Goodness knows I’d make it about a day before breaking down. All I ask is that people stop bragging about their misery.
Braggadocious whining makes you feel better, and it invariably makes the happy, healthy, sane listener feel worse. If you are feeling spiteful, this is almost as good as being happy, healthy, and sane.
This is the kind of whining that is problematic. The rest is a relatively harmless waste of air.
Complaint-bragging is not a problem unique to Hillsdale. It’s a problem with everyone, everywhere; but it’s is becoming an pandemic on this college campus. Things are getting out of hand when ice cream breaks become furtive guilt trips.
There’s a thin line between commiseration and conceit. Commiseration builds community, but it requires listening and honesty. Conceit tears it down and drives people into isolation and shame.
Misery does love company. But I say we need to put it in time-out, or at least make it play alone more often. We’d be better company, and maybe then our freshman could eat their ice cream in peace.
Julie Havlak is a senior studying English.