One of our favorite writers, Charlaine Harris, has her very own blog with some very good, spiritual reflections. Not overtly spiritual, mind you. You do have to think outside the box a bit, just like when you read her Sookie Stackhouse novels and see that the discrimination she uses as part of the story line - Should vampires get married? If you can marry a vampire, the next thing you know, we'll allow werewolves to get married. And what if a vampire moves in next door to me? What will I tell the children? - are all really nifty ways to talk about the prejudices that have been a part of society for quite a while.
One of her recent posts discussed how she responded when people offered what she calls a "complaintment." They are, as Ms. Harris (who is an Episcopalian) says, "a complaint thinly disguised as a compliment."
We hear those quite often. I have a great-aunt who excelled at them. She would say things like, "You're hair used to look so cute when you were younger." Or "You cousin Blythe has such a cute face...for a chubby girl." Or (my personal favorite) "That Randall boy grew up to be successful and handsome. Too bad you didn't get him while you had a chance."
Yes. THAT'S a complaintment. It sounds nice, but it's not. It's actually a priceless example of passive-aggressiveness. What my great-aunt really wanted to say was, "I don't like your new haircut," or, "I think Blythe is overweight." But she didn't. She couched them in some back-handed compliment that, she thought, disguised her disappointment and perhaps even her anger.
We clergy types hear complaintments with regularity. They are suspiciously present in emails, where possibilities of true conversation are wholly absent. I suspect almost every profession hears them, but since I'm a priest, I'll speak for my pack. Complaintments about the length or content or style of our sermons. Complaintments about our appearance. Complaintments about the way we lead worship. Complaintments about how we do or don't do pastoral care, run parish meetings, or any number of things the "right" way. And. lest we forget, we clergy types are really good at dishing out complaintments, too. We are not exempt from this temptation.
(An aside, I happen to be a priest in a congregation that excels at healthy forthright conversation. To my parishioners: Don't read anything into this post other than the general nudge we all need to remember to speak our truth in love.)
And God bless Charlaine Harris, because I've finally found a response to share when someone offers a complaintment: "How do you hope I will feel when you say that to me?"
Because when we speak our complaintment, we want to be the "nice" person while we hand someone a stem of thorns which we pretend is a rose. It's not. It's prickly and hurtful to the recipient. Our words may look nice on the page, but we want the person to whom we are speaking to feel some kind of shame that they have disappointed our expectations. And shame ends a conversation, creates walls, and damages relationships.
While saying to someone, "I was disappointed when my husband was sick and you didn't call," may seem hard, it is your truth. When I've heard of my shortcomings as a priest from parishioners in a direct and clear way, I may have felt hurt and disappointment at myself, but I also felt the grace to talk with the person about what happened. Sometimes it was a misunderstanding. Sometimes I just made a mistake. We clergy make mistakes. Most of us are aware we screw up. Those who think they are perfect won't get the subtle passive-aggressive context of a complaintment, anyway. They may not even hear the direct approach, but that's another post.
Complaintments don't engage conversation; they are grenades thrown to explode where they may. Maybe we hear the pain that sits under the anger; maybe we don't. Maybe the person who hears the complaintment will dismiss the speaker. Maybe the person who says the complaintment will feel dismissed. Complaintments are mostly about manipulating and controlling the other person's feelings, usually by hurting them out of our own hurt and disappointment or anger. Any way you frame them, complaintments have no place in Christian conversation.
Truth, on the other hand, opens the space of peace and honesty. When we speak our truth, we offer ourselves into a vulnerable place. We open ourselves. When we speak our truth, we are not trying to control how the other feels. Instead, we are speaking our feelings - mad, sad, glad, or scared. We are giving ourselves to the grace of uncertainty. The other person may hear us or may not. There may be resolution or not. But there has been truth, and that is always valuable.
Complaintments are easy.
Truth is hard.
Speak your truth.
And read Charlaine Harris. Her books are wonderful.