“Democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
“The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”
Charles de Gaulle
Who doesn’t love a zingy wisecrack from a seasoned curmudgeon? In fact, grumpsters — or even ordinary folks experiencing a cranky moment — have a way of breaking through social constraints to voice sentiments we normally don’t dare express. My husband (and I say this lovingly and gratefully) does not have a natural gift for grumpiness. In fact, he’s usually a pretty cheerful, even-tempered guy. But this week he studied at the feet of grumpmaster Rabih Alameddine in the online seminar Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy. Rich picked up some useful pointers, and in an exclusive interview at our breakfast table shared some of his newfound insights.
“What do you mean by ‘grumpy’?” I asked.
“Contrarian,” he replied. “I think one of the benefits of being grumpy is the ability to honestly express yourself rather than complying with the norms of society. As I learned in the happiness course, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. But we Americans are always told to put on a happy face. If I find somebody who is grumpy, I try to cheer them up or solve the problem. But sometimes people need to wallow in their grumpiness.”
“Can grumpiness go too far?”
“Sure. It can turn mean. Look at Archie Bunker.” (For younger readers, Archie was the bigoted dad in the 70s sitcom All in the Family. We all chuckled over his malapropisms such as “We’re just sweeping dirty dishes under the rug,” and “Don’t draw me no diaphragms.” But his more abusive remarks, such as constantly telling his wife, “Stifle yourself!” made us cringe.)
“Grumpiness can cut off communication," Rich said. "For example, if you bring up climate change with a grumpy person, they might say, ‘We’re all screwed anyway, so who cares?’ Or ‘What a bunch of baloney!’ It can be just another way of saying ‘Leave me alone’ because they’re afraid of verbalizing the existence of a very difficult subject.” He reflected a moment. “On the other hand, grumpiness can open up conversations. People have a tendency to give an answer they think the other person will like — or at least not be offended by. If you’re a grumpy person, you’re an outsider who gives yourself permission to tell people what you think without caring what the reaction is going to be.”
An honest outsider’s perspective is, according to Alameddine, vital for our own survival and society’s wellbeing. That's why they had court jesters back in the day. “I was lucky enough to be born weird; I never fit in,” he says. “Being a bit off center allowed me to see the center a bit more clearly.” He explains every society has a dominant culture that defines what’s OK and what’s not, creating expectations about the roles we play and how we interact with one another. This is useful for creating a stable society but has serious downsides, too.
“Why limit myself?” Alameddine asks. “Why is being gay what defines me? Why is being five feet four what defines me? Why is being Lebanese what defines me?” While identities can give us a comfortable sense of belonging, they can also be restrictive, making it impossible to be our whole selves. To fit in with society’s preconceived notions, we often, in Archie Bunker’s words, “stifle ourselves.” We might, for instance, be keeping a leash on our inner wild woman, the part of us that secretly longs to quit our job, hitchhike a thousand miles, dance naked in the rain with strangers, and speak the truth when it matters.
It’s human nature to fit people into pigeonholes, then think that gives us insight into their psyches. As a gay novelist writing about characters with diverse proclivities, Alameddine was amazed how some critics leapt to outrageous false assumptions about his personal life. “My idea of rough sex,” he says, “is sleeping on sheets with less than 600 thread count.”
Identifying with any group immediately separates the world into us and them. “Every identity is also a horror,” says Italian scholar Claudio Magris, “because it owes its existence to tracing a border and rebuffing whatever is on the other side.”
Fortunately, borders are permeable; we can cross them, although it isn't easy. “When you leave the comfort of boundaries,” Alameddine advises, “go gently. Try to discover rather than laying claim.” This is a lesson learned by every expat. When we leave the comfort of home to live in a foreign land, we become aliens. It takes patience, luck, an open heart, a delicate touch, and plenty of bellyflops and pratfalls to make even a tenuous place for ourselves abroad, especially when living among those who have known each other since baptism.
The bottom line, says Rich, is “Be fearless.” Embracing your inner grump is one way of claiming your birthright as a complex person living on your own terms.
The Buddhists put it this way: “Show up. Be present to the moment. Tell the truth as you know it. Have no attachment to outcome.”
This doesn’t mean we have to turn into caustic Archie Bunkers, or start slinging zingers like Dorothy Parker, or develop the kind of barbed wit that led comedian Oscar Levant, when asked about his morning routine, to say, “First I brush my teeth, then I sharpen my tongue.” How we find our freedom and nurture our souls is up to us. “If you don’t want to be grumpy,” says Alameddine, “be Happy, be Sleepy, be Dopey, be any of the Seven Dwarves. Just be more than one identity. Be greater than these limited identities.” And if that doesn’t work for you, he adds, then “blow it out your ear, get off my lawn, and bah humbug!”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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