A few years ago, my husband and I met some friends half-way between North Carolina and Kentucky. Our designated meeting place was a McDonald’s. When we arrived, their 3-year-old son Alec was finishing his Happy Meal. They also had baby Olivia, and we were cooing and arguing over who got to hold her. Trying to get his mother’s attention, Alec began to pull on her dress and whine that he wanted to go play in the McDonald’s playground. Gently and firmly she said to him, “What do whiners get?” With a dejected expression, in a tiny voice, he replied, “Nothing.” Not being a mother myself, I thought her actions somewhat harsh. He was, after all, only three, and he just wanted to play in the McDonald’s playground.
We visited them again in California a few years later. There was another new baby (this time my own) and just as much fussing as there had been at that McDonald’s meeting. At one point, the now-5-year-old decided he very much wanted us to come and play Toy Story 2 with him. He walked up to my husband, who was holding the baby, and said, “Will you please come and play with me?” In place of the three-year-old whine was a five-year-old articulation of what he wanted, what he needed.
Whining has gained a bit of notice in recent years. There are 5,000 informational websites that teach about whining and another 125,000 websites that are whining forums. You can whine about anything from the power crisis to the continuing debate over social security to results of last night’s Rock Star: INXS episode. There are a number of commercial websites dedicated to the sale of No Whining Memorabilia – the word whining enclosed in a red circle with a red line, like a no smoking sign. My favorite website sells Whine Labels – bottles of wine with customized labels about whatever you want to whine about. “Oh, thanks for coming over for dinner. Would you like some wine? I have a lovely bottle of Can you believe the price of gas?? Perhaps you’d prefer this, a 1999 The church wants money again!” Whining is an epidemic in our society. Why is that? What is whining? What do we think we can accomplish by whining?
Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, authors of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, write,
Not long after your child starts walking and talking, chances are he will probably learn to whine. Maybe he'll even learn to follow you around the house, whining all the way. Just a "Mommy" in that plaintive, nasal tone can be enough to send shivers down your spine. The thing about whining is that it is practically impossible to ignore. And that, of course, is why kids do it. They want your attention, whether the attention is good or bad.
Another child psychologist writes,
Feelings are an important part of children’s self concept. Children don’t fully understand their feelings, so they will tend to whine when they're hungry, tired, upset, bored, overstimulated, ill or not getting enough attention. According to many experts, then, whining – at least a small amount – seems to be a part of children’s development.
So what’s our excuse?
Why do adults whine?
I looked for examples of whiny adults in the media, and in literature, and in the news, before I realized that the best examples of whining are found in the Bible. The Bible is full of complaining, nagging, pestering – whining. It starts with Adam – “the woman made me do it” – and hits almost every generation afterwards. Cain whines because God favors Abel’s offering, Jacob whines because Isaac favors Esau, the other 11 sons whine because Jacob favors Joseph. Moses whines that he can’t possible help the Israelites – he stutters. David whines because he wants Bathsheba, Jonah whines because he doesn’t want to speak a prophetic word to Nineveh. We get into the New Testament, and we have a bunch of whining disciples. They whine about feeding the masses, as we read in our text today, they whine that they won’t know what to do when Jesus leaves them. The Pharisees just whine, in general. Martha whines because she wants Mary to help her in the kitchen, Mary, Jesus’ mother, whines about having enough wine at a wedding banquet. There is an epidemic of whining. But these were all men and women of great strength, and courage, and faith. Whining is not an affliction of the weak – we all do it. So why do we whine?
Whining, at its root, comes from not asking for what we need. And most of the time, we don’t ask for what we need because we are scared we won’t get it. We are scared there won’t be enough. We buy into the modern myth of scarcity, the fear that what we have today will run out tomorrow. And the deepest fear we have as humans, the fear that we see in all of these Bible characters is a fear that comes from our greatest need. That is the need to be loved. Our greatest fear is that there won’t be enough love for both you and me, and that I’m the one that will be left with less.
In his brilliant, powerful book How Good Do We Have to Be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner asserts that Original Sin is neither disobedience nor is it lust. He writes, “the Original Sin that affects virtually every one of us and leads to other, worse sins is the belief that there is not enough love to go around.”
“And therefore,” he continues, “when someone else is loved, he or she is stealing that love from us.” Our primal fear is that our parents don’t have enough love for us all, and someone else may be getting part of our share.
How clearly we see this as the human condition in the story of the prodigal son. Do you know the story? A young man demands his inheritance from his father, squanders it on wild living, and returns home, willing to work as a servant. His father meets him on the road, embraces him, lavishes gifts and a banquet upon him. But when I speak of the prodigal son as an illustration, I don’t mean the younger son, but the older one. The older son angrily confronts his father, again – whining – that he had been a great son, followed the rules, and never received such treatment. His father tries to reassure him, but we don’t know if the older son ever quite “gets it.”
Later in life, when we are passed over for a promotion, when our doctor or our clergyman gets our name wrong, when someone pushes ahead of us in line, we may respond with a disproportionate sense of hurt because the experience reawakens childhood feelings that our parents may love someone else more than they love us.
What he is saying is that sometimes, our fear that there is not enough love has been substantiated in some way. Our parents or care-givers may have indeed played favorites, they might have abused us physically or emotionally, they might just have, in their unfamiliarity with the terrain of parenting, not known how to give us the love we needed. We might have had friends who couldn’t or didn’t stick by us in tough times. Our lovers and spouses may have outright scorned or abused us, or they may have neglected us to fulfill their workaholic impulses. Sometimes, our fear that there is not enough love is, we think, proven to us, in painful ways. And so what is already difficult for us as humans – that is, asking for what we need – becomes an even more dangerous endeavor, because we have evidence that we might not receive that which we ask for.
In the book of John in the Christian Bible, there's a story about abundance. It's commonly called “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” and it’s the only miracle, other than the resurrection narrative, that is found in all four gospels. That's the signal that there is something significant in this segment of Jesus’ ministry.
I think the overarching theme of this narrative is that there is enough, and I don’t just mean food. The story begins not with the actual feeding but with the fact that Jesus “withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.” Jesus was tired, a little stressed, and wanted some private time with his closest friends. The masses, drawn to the power of his teachings, followed them. And when they came, Jesus “welcomed them, and spoke to them. . .and healed those who need to be cured.” The story begins with an act of love – an immense act. Few of us welcome interruptions in our “down” times, our own times of withdrawing. We cherish our private time and tolerate no interruptions short of an earthquake or the end of the world. For example, when my brothers were young, I can assure you that my tired and stressed and otherwise loving and helpful mother did not welcome my interrupting her afternoon reading time with questions about what shoes went with the outfit I had on. Jesus, loving and helpful, tired and stressed, welcomed them.
It got late – and what happened? The Disciples started whining. They said, “There are a whole lot of people here, we have no money - better just send them somewhere else. And by the way, what are we going to eat??” (There’s that fear – that there will be more for “you” than there is for “me.”) The Scripture records that there were five thousand men. We know from the other gospels that these men had brought their wives and children with them, so the total head count was probably somewhere around 10,000. The Bible says, “And all ate and were filled.”
And then God throws in the humorous, ironic touch that I love. There were twelve basketfuls left – one for each disciple. Those ol’ whiny disciples, worried about what they would eat, each had a basketful of food.
This is not a story about what whiners get. This story is a story of abundance, of love – immense love – enough love – love for you and me and for us all – love that fulfills us – love that can take away our fears.
When our friends taught their son Alec that whiners get nothing, they were using a parenting technique to provide their son boundaries and a structured, loving upbringing. But they were teaching him a truth pertinent only to their family. Whiners get nothing in their family, but in many families, in many situations in our lives, whining – let’s face it – works. We get so tired, annoyed and worn down by whining, we often give in to whatever the underlying request is, whether the whiner is an adult or a child. And, let’s face it, God loves whiners, too – older prodigal son included.
So what's the point? That whiners get nothing? No, because sometimes they do. That whining is ok? No, because it’s not a true expression of who we are and what we need. The point is that God loves you, truly, madly deeply, abundantly – and that God loves each one of us – you and you and you and me – equally. Enough. More than enough. In the Christian tradition, we have a word for that love.
It’s called “grace.”