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“Ruminants usually have a stomach divided into four compartments and chew a cud consisting of regurgitated, partially digested food. Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, antelopes, and camels” (Dictionary.com).
It sounds quite unappetizing to have food going back and forth in our digestive tracts. Anyone want to bring breakfast back for some more chewing?
While humans are not official ruminants, many of us do ruminate—many of us regularly bring up old and painful experiences. We remember and review them over and over. We fret about them. We brood. We blame ourselves. Just like stomach acid causes heartburn, the emotional “acid” of these painful recollections causes pain to our minds and hearts.
Do you ruminate? In the course of a normal day, do you find thoughts of stupid mistakes from the past popping into your head? Do you find yourself revisiting conversations, regretting comments that hurt others’ feelings? Do you have a nagging sense of guilt for things you wish you hadn’t done? Do you replay memories of your failings in your mind? If so, you ruminate. I know the pains of rumination; I am a skilled ruminator myself.
Out of the blue I will have thoughts about my stupidest moments. They are often trivial and probably forgotten by everyone but me.
In adulthood, women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression. Martin Seligman, the famous psychologist, nominates rumination as the reason. When women feel bad, they ruminate. They endlessly mull over their mistakes. They may even bring up old mistakes as evidence that they are thoughtless or foolish. They seem to have prosecuting attorneys within their own souls.
In contrast, when men feel bad, they tend to act. Maybe they go shoot some hoops, pick a fight, or drive recklessly. They are no wiser than women, but they are less likely to be depressed.
Let’s put rumination in spiritual perspective. We might assume that heaven sends ruminations as part of a campaign for repentance. That is mistaken. God sends invitations but not ruminations. Ruminations are a gift from Satan, the great accuser. It is he who wants to keep us miserable in a cycle of self-blame and endless recrimination. He knows that such thinking sparks despair rather than repentance.
The good news is that we can stop ruminating—we can stop being the victims of Satan’s accusations. And we can do it while still being appropriately accountable. I will adapt Seligman’s five suggestions.
First, we can learn to recognize those automatic thoughts that flit through our heads. We can notice when we bring back mistakes in service of accusing and blaming ourselves. Often we start a narrative that suggests that our badness is personal, permanent, and pervasive. “I keep making the same stupid mistakes again and again in every part of my life. What is wrong with me?” We should catch ourselves when we say such things.
Second, we can learn to challenge or dispute those automatic thoughts. Yes. We make mistakes. Foolish ones. We also do many things well. And we keep learning and growing from our mistakes. Taking a bleak view of ourselves is a distortion intended to immobilize us. God does not want us to feel hopeless.
Third, we can learn to change our explanations. Maybe we discover that we have problems when we are under pressure or when we’re tired. We show ourselves the same kind of compassion we would show others: “I don’t do well in those circumstances. I will ask people to help me avoid those situations that bring out the worst.”
Fourth, we can learn to distract ourselves from depressing thoughts. Rather than let ourselves cascade into misery and self-hate, we do something to help us productively move forward. Maybe we talk a walk, or work on a project, or connect with a friend. We may postpone thoughts about our mistakes until we are feeling more safe and balanced.
Fifth, we can challenge our “depression-sowing assumptions.” Maybe you find yourself thinking about your weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings. Of course, there is some truth to those accusations. We are indeed fallen. And, “because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). But any pain at our fallenness should be promptly healed by His redemptiveness. We should acknowledge our weaknesses and choose repentance. To wallow in self-accusation, believing that we are beyond repair or beyond forgiveness, is to disrespect the power of the atonement can heal and change us.
There are times when God would have us minister to those we have injured. There is a place for apologies and reparations. There are times when God will call us to do better as we move forward. But there is not a place in God’s plan for endless self-recrimination.
I recommend Nephi’s psalm (2 Ne 4:17-35) as a pattern for dealing with self-accusation. When Nephi dwelt on what was wrong with himself (vv. 17-19), he was miserable. When he turned to what is right about God (vv. 19-35), he rejoiced and was filled with hope. There is a core lesson of life there.
We are demonstrably foolish as fallen humans. But God is fully determined to provide us experience AND redeem us. “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds our recurring wrongs,” as Neal Maxwell reminded us.
So, when those bitter tastes of foolishness and fallenness come to our mouths, we should swallow hard and fill our mouths with rejoicing in the One who has paid our tuition in the school of life—the One who knows that we will make abundant mistakes but whose commitment to us is infinite and eternal.
Next time you notice the bitter taste of self-blame, cry out for mercy, “O Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” Ask Him to heal you. Ask Him what He would have you do to make needed amends.
You may enjoy Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, or Albert Ellis’ book, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything–Yes, Anything!
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful editing.