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Quit your whining, if you can

A Times reporter accepts the challenge to go three weeks without uttering a negative word. Hey, if you think it's so easy, you try it, bub.

January 27, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Highlands Ranch, Colo. — MY first attempt at a complaint-free life lasted 15 minutes.

Dropping the kids at school five days after a blizzard, I found the parking lot impassible and the sidewalks treacherous. "This place is a disaster!" I called to the principal.

And instantly regretted it.

Why harp on a situation no one could control? I should have thanked the principal for standing in the cold to make sure his students got in safely -- or brightened his day with a cheery hello.

I had resolved to quit grumbling after reading about a challenge presented to the congregation of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Mo. The Rev. Will Bowen -- fed up with folks whining about his choice of worship music -- asked his flock of 250 to refrain from complaining, criticizing and gossiping for three weeks.

Bowen, 47, is a big fan of self-help programs. A few years back, he and his wife erased more than $40,000 in debt by following the financial makeover plan advocated by syndicated radio host Dave Ramsey. Lately, Bowen's been hooked on the writings of a fellow Unity minister, Edwene Gaines, who promises prosperity through positive thinking.

Gaines proposed the concept of a complaint-free church in her book "The Four Spiritual Laws of Prosperity: A Simple Guide to Unlimited Abundance." Then Bowen came up with a gimmick to make it stick. A former radio-station manager and phonebook ad salesman -- he turned to ministry four years ago -- Bowen delights in giveaways. Every few weeks, he interrupts his service by distributing small gifts: picture frames, perhaps, or candles or bookmarks. "Doodad Sunday," he calls it.

For the no-complaint sermon last summer, he handed out purple rubber bracelets stamped with the word SPIRIT. (They were intended for school pep rallies, but Bowen figured "spirit" could also signify the spirit of change.) Bowen told his congregants that they were to switch the bracelet to their other wrist every time they griped or sniped. Their goal: 21 consecutive days without moving the bracelet.

Bowen used a quote from writer Maya Angelou as the campaign slogan: "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."

If only it were that simple.

Before taking the challenge, Bowen had always considered himself sunny: "My job is to see God, and good, in everything."

He soon realized he wasn't as imperturbable as he'd thought, especially when his beloved Kansas City Royals were blowing yet another baseball game. Some Sundays, he'd take the pulpit and confess: "I moved that bracelet 20 times this week. I wanted to take it off and throw it in a drawer."

It took Bowen three months before he made it through 21 days without complaining. "And it helped," he said, "that I was on a silent retreat for three of those days."

Many in his congregation worked hard to follow his example. Tom Alyea, 44, learned to keep his headaches to himself, even when he could have used a little sympathy from his wife. Linda LeMieux, 53, trained herself not to chide her husband when he drove too fast. (Though she did sometimes read aloud speed-limit signs -- just for his information.)

Terry Rennack, 53, had a harder time. "I work with computers -- in a government environment," he said. "So, yeah. Believe me. This is the toughest thing I've ever had to do."

Rennack complained about work. He complained about red lights. He complained that his no-complaint bracelet was getting stretched because he switched wrists so often. As the weeks went by, he began to realize how much he allowed trivial frustrations to dictate his mood. "It was a very humbling experience," he said.

With the purple bracelet as his guide, Rennack learned to stay serene in the face of setbacks, to listen more and mouth off less. It took him three months, but he made it to 21 days, earning a "Certificate of Happiness" and the chance to hang his well-worn purple bracelet on a plastic tree in the church lobby.

So far, 18 members of the congregation have met the challenge. Many more are still working at it.

I slipped up time and again in the early going. I criticized my oldest daughter for (of all things) singing happily at the breakfast table, and dismissed a sculpture at the Denver Art Museum with a disdainful: "That's so ugly!"

Slowly, though, I started to get the hang of it. I didn't say a word when my computer crashed or when my shower was ice-cold. I even kept mum when my husband spent a half-hour wrestling with our son before bed. Not so much as a "told you so" when the little guy was so hyped up he had trouble falling asleep.

At one point, I went two days without complaining. Even when I lapsed, I noticed my grumbles were muted.

I also noticed that my family was not taking my success well. I was chirpy (and, worse yet, smug about my good cheer) until something irritated me. Then, I sulked. Instead of coming right out with a critique, I'd give everyone the silent treatment.

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