“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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5/25/2021 10:25:35 pm
This post is much fun as I had anticipated when you first announced its coming! Plus a shout-out to my idol, Clarissa Pinkola Estes! Thank you!
5/26/2021 12:32:26 am
So glad you enjoyed the grumpy seminar post, Alicia. Rich and I both took the course and it's given us plenty to talk about, as you can imagine. I'm not surprised Clarissa Pinkola Estes is one of your heroes; she calls to the wild woman in all of us.
5/26/2021 06:45:30 am
great column --- so many fabulous quotes. And you remind me of my favorite grump, H.L. Mencken. There are literally thousands of great Mencken quotes that I could send you, but I pick this one after reading today's news:
5/26/2021 03:09:45 pm
Mencken is the quintessential grump; I can't believe I didn't include any of his great one-liners here. Love the gratitude quote. Among my other faves are "An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup" and "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong," and of course, the classic "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." He's a great example of what grumps have contributed to public discourse. Thanks for bringing him to this conversation, Michael.
5/27/2021 05:49:12 am
I am so glad you wrote this post, Karen. Quotes are my thing! I can relate to just about everything you wrote here and all the quotes. A wise old Jesuit, at a lecture, shared a little jingle that goes like this:
6/2/2021 02:56:55 am
Faye, I love the jingle! And what wisdom it embodies! It's a great reminder of the wonderful opportunity we all have to support each other in our inner journey towards becoming who we really are, despite all the ways society tries to trip us up and box us in at times. Thanks for sharing!
5/28/2021 05:10:56 am
I guess this Blog is a lot more complicated than I expected. In April I was talking to a 30 year old Lesbian about "Lipstick Lesbians" which I learned in a Alameddine book. The woman dismissed the term as dated because she and her finance had both been with men and gender roles have changed a lot. Bunker was comedy to me back then. I am glad I could relate to the Happiness blog more. Olive Kit/ty PS I love your photos every blog.
6/2/2021 02:59:00 am
You're so right, Kitty. This subject is a complex one, and every once in a while I like to delve into something a little deeper and more challenging. I know you're up to it! And I'm glad to hear you relate more to the happiness blot. I do too!
3/10/2022 05:30:28 am
This is a very informative—edifying article to all. Thanks a lot! Continue to post!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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