It’s a common refrain on my Facebook feed: millennials, or maybe liberals, or immigrants, or whatever group is in the news today for demanding something the poster thinks is unreasonable, are whiners or freeloaders or entitled or idiots or maybe criminals. Their request is ridiculous, and they should all just shut their mouths and go to work and learn some discipline and pull themselves up like the poster did.
I often sympathize with the poster’s point of view; it’s difficult to watch a group of people demand something I never had, something it never occurred to me to ask for, something I think could be hurtful to the economy or even the group demanding it if they actually got it.
I don’t sympathize with the approach, though. There is a deep irony in the amount of energy members of my generation spend complaining about people who complain.
Some of the words we use to describe the complainers have merit: there are certainly those among them who feel entitled to more than they have earned, those who want something for free, those who want a shortcut to something others worked hard for years to gain.
But I can’t hear the words my generation uses to describe millennials without thinking of the words used to describe my generation years ago. Where they are whiny, entitled freeloaders, we were lazy, disrespectful, and demanding. Of course, I read those words in Time as I was busting my hump to find success as a young Army officer. They were no more true of me in the ’90s than they are of many young people today.
At the end of the day, it comes down to a simple truth: complaining on its own, whether it’s about an injustice done to you or your annoyance at somebody’s behavior, accomplishes nothing. All we can do, all any of us can do, is the best we can with the people, the tools, the situation before us.
That usually means choosing the hard way over the easy way.
That means talking with people we would rather talk about, engaging them, trying to find out what they really want and why they think this is the way to achieve it.
That means biting our tongues when we feel tempted to call people unflattering names, instead approaching them with respect even if they haven’t extended the same courtesy to us.
That means opening ourselves to consider what people want, putting ourselves in their shoes and asking ourselves if I were where she is now, would I want what she wants? What would it mean to her if she got it? What would it mean to me?
Most of all, that means listening to the people around us, loving them, taking them for who they are rather than judging them by the categories we think they fit into.
It takes sixty seconds to post a complaint to Facebook, an act that might gain you a few likes and some angry comments and will change nobody’s behavior in the slightest. It takes a lifetime to engage the people around us on their own terms, an endless series of acts that carry no guarantees and a lot of frustration, but might make a difference to somebody.
Will you choose the minute, or the lifetime?