Exactly 17 years ago, I learned just how much the simple act of complaining could affect me. How it transformed me into a negative, bitter person. A person I didn't like. Over the years though, those lessons faded. But they resurfaced earlier this year during my ob-gyn clerkship. And this time, I want these lessons to stick.
In the spring of 2000, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was involved in a Christian fellowship group on campus. My friends were all talking about what they were going to "give up" for Lent. This 40-day period represents the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. It's meant to stimulate contemplation and self-sacrifice.
I was raised attending various Protestant churches, but none had observed Lent. So this was new to me. I heard my friends discussing abstinence from things like chocolate or coffee. That didn't resonate with me. It wouldn't change me.
So I decided to give up complaining. I knew, of course, that I wouldn't entirely succeed at this. But I wanted those 40 days to make me aware of how much I complained. I wanted to learn something about myself and emerge as a better person.
Sitting in the dining hall one evening for dinner, we were talking about our choices for Lent. I eagerly shared my idea, sure it would spark a useful discussion. It did quite the opposite.
"You can't give up complaining for Lent!" was the general consensus.
It wasn't a "thing." So it didn't count.
I wholeheartedly disagreed, but kept that to myself. It wasn't worth arguing with people who clearly had made up their minds.
What I remember from those 40 days is developing a heightened awareness of two things. First, I realized just how much time I spent complaining; second, how that complaining had a dramatic effect on my attitude and mood. When I complained, my outlook deteriorated into the negative. The negative then seeped into every aspect of my life. Realizing this, I made a conscious effort to complain less. As a result, I felt noticeably more hopeful about my life. I wasn't naive or unrealistic. I simply had a better perspective. And it made a difference.
The change, though, was temporary. Slowly, I found myself sucked back into the grind of life.
Nearly two decades later, the start of the ob-gyn clerkship helped remind me of these lessons. I found myself complaining about lots of little things: How early I had to get up and be at the hospital. How someone in the operating room had been curt. How hard it was to find time to eat or drink anything. Though my complaints weren't necessarily unjustified, they were taking me back to that old and familiar black hole.
So I decided to break down my complaining into groups: things I either could, or could not, do something about. For things I could partially or completely change, I worked to find a solution. I started to keep protein bars and string cheese in my white coat pocket, for example. For things I couldn't change, I worked toward acceptance. I acknowledged that hospital life begins at an early hour. That's just the reality. And there will always be rude people — in the operating room and elsewhere. Whining about these facts accomplished nothing aside from making me miserable.
Little by little, I made these conscious changes. As was the case 17 years earlier, the effect on my outlook was striking. Not only was my attitude more positive, which meant I felt better about life in general, but I suddenly found myself getting far more out of the clerkship. I also discovered that when I accepted that things wouldn't be perfect (and they never are), I could focus more on learning and growing as both a future physician and as a person.
I don't claim that my attitude is perfect. Keeping a positive perspective is a daily work in progress. I do believe the effort is worthwhile, though.
Attitude may not be everything. But it's certainly a big part.