I want to take back the word ruminate. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the word “ruminate (v.)” dating from the 1530s, means “’to turn over in the mind,’ also ‘to chew cud’ (1540s), from Latin ruminatus, past participle of ruminare ‘to chew the cud; turn over in the mind,’ from rumen (genitive ruminis) ‘gullet,’ of uncertain origin.” Merriam-Webster Online gives the definition of ruminate as
1: to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly
2: to chew repeatedly for an extended period
1: to chew again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed : chew the cud
2: to engage in contemplation : REFLECT
But psychology — and in general I have real respect and genuine gratitude for the healing and support psychology and psychotherapists provide; if I kept a gratitude journal, my therapist’s name would be on every page — has come near to ruining this abundantly apt word that perfectly expresses the way many of us need or choose to take the time to ponder and deliberate rather than hasten to judge or get embroiled in the consequences of an ill-considered decision. Psychology, as a field, has decided ruminate should mean obsessively thinking about whatever is bothering one, over and over, round and round… ¹
I think one of the reasons that this definition has become popular, not only among psychologists, but in the general public as well, is that we have such short attention spans and have come to prize speed over all else. We rush to embrace technology that robs us of our privacy, we don’t stay to watch the credits after a movie (unless there’s an added scene), we expect to know the results of every election before the votes are all counted.
Take a breath, people.
Being ruminative used to be a positive attribute, one that indicated one was a careful, thoughtful person, not inclined to fling one’s self pell-mell off a cliff. Now it is a weakness, a character flaw that indicates one brings one’s misfortunes upon one’s self because one can’t control one’s thoughts.
Join me in my mission. Let’s rescue ruminate. Start using it in its proper sense. Fling it with abandon into your philosophical conversations: “I was ruminating upon the meaning of life the other day and wondering just what 42 really has to do with it.” If someone tries to push you into making a snap decision, say, “You know, in order to give you the thoughtful answer you
deserve, I need to ruminate on that for a day or two.” When next asked to describe yourself, pause for a moment, then declare, “I am an attentive, measured sort of person with a ruminative cast to my mind.” (Just don’t tell anyone you’re a ruminant. That will totally undermine our goal.)
And after we save ruminate, we’re coming back for you, enable.
Every so often, the New Yorker slips a suggestion for an archived article into the inbox of my e-mail. That how I came across Andrew Solomon’s article, “Anatomy of Melancholy,” that appeared in New Yorker’s January 12, 1998 issue. It’s a pretty harrowing description of the depths down to which depression can pull person and of the biases that still pertain when it comes to admitting to others or to ourselves that we have a mental illness and, worse, might be so “weak” as to need chemical (or electrical) interventions. As I moved through the essay, I came upon this proffered bit of wisdom:
Accuracy of perception is not an evolutionary priority. Too optimistic a world view results in foolish risk-taking, but moderate optimism gives you a strong selective advantage. “Normal human thought and perception,“ Shelley Taylor writes in her 1989 book, Positive Illusions, “is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. Moreover…these illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear actually to be adaptive.” As she notes, “The mildly depressed appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world, and the future than normal people. [They] clearly lack the illusions that in normal people promote mental health and buffer them against setbacks.”
So — why are those of us with depression and accurate perceptions the ones who are mentally ill, while the “normies” with their illusions are the ones who are considered sane? Why are we the ones who are seen as less evolved? Am I the only one who thinks this assessment is a little bit off?
In a recent car commercial, actor and apparent guru Matthew
McConaughey ruminates (see how easy it is just to slip the word right into a sentence?) out loud about the process of identity formation.
“Knowin’ who we are is hard — it’s hard. Eliminatin’ who you
are not, first, and you’re gonna find yourself where ya need to be.”
OK, first: shouldn’t the thrust of the first sentence — the search for identity — lead to a statement about finding out who one is rather than where one is? I guess that’s what happens when one infuses manufactured sagacity into an advert for a vehicle. And never mind the lack of parallel structure in the second sentence.
But what I keep thinking is, “What if we, as is recommended by Mr. McConaughey, eliminate all the people we are not, only to realize there’s no one left?” That’s kind of who-where I keep finding myself.
An ethical dilemma: At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, by Daniel G. Amen. M.D. I haven’t read very far into it, but so far there are some sensible observations about the practicality of having one’s brain scanned for damage so one knows whether medical or psychotherapeutic remedies are most likely to be beneficial. However, on page twenty-nine, our friend the doctor discusses things that hurt the brain and things that help the brain. Under malign influences, Dr. Amen notes that “even spending time with unhealthy people [is] bad for the brain.” OK: I can see how that can work; we are the company we keep.
In the next paragraph, Dr. Amen lists things that can boost the brain. This list includes the point that “In many ways, the best thing you can do for your brain is to spend time with healthy people. As we will see, they are contagious. I often say the fastest way to get healthy is to find the healthiest person you can stand and then spend as much time around him or her as possible.” That also makes sense.
Aside from the difficulties of fulfilling this prescription in our COVID-19-riddled age — and you may already see the problem here — consider this: Let’s say I’m a healthy person. I know an unhealthy person, someone with, say, depression, someone who would immensely benefit from spending time with me. Yet if I do spend time with that person, I’ll be engaged in an activity that will be detrimental to my own grey matter. On the other hand, if I choose to protect myself by shunning the depressed person, I’m selfishly depriving her or him of my beneficial “contagion” and preventing that person from attaining the flourishing cerebrum she or he deserves. (Unless, of course, that person has been ruminating. In that case, she or he deserves all the melancholy that infests her or his soul. [That’s an example how NOT to use the word ruminating.]) I’m either allowing harm to come to myself or withholding aid from another, which makes me a pretty lousy human being, and knowing that I’m a pretty lousy human will depress me.
Now let’s imagine that I am the unhealthy person, and I know a tremendously healthy person, in whose salubrious presence I never fail to rally. I have a lot of time on my hands. I easily could spend days with this person and notably sharpen my dulled mental functions and ameliorate my debilitating mood. However, by latching on to this bloom-imparting person, I will be causing harm to that individual’s well-being and will likely disrupt her or his equilibrium. That would make me an insensitive parasite, sucking the life out of someone for my own ends, and being such a draining leech would make me feel horrible and depressed.
So what to do? I hate lose-lose, damned-if-you-do-or-don’t, caught-between-Scylla-and-a-hard-place options.
And then Will Wheaton put this up on his Blog:
Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, which has a much more beautiful name in Chinese (the literal translation for revenge bedtime procrastination means “suffering through the night vengefully.”), is a phenomena unique to people who feel out of control in their daily lives, so we refuse to go to sleep early, to exert some control over our lives, and to enjoy some quiet time alone, when the rest of our people are sleeping.
I should confess, straight up, that I am, by nature, a night owl. It runs in the family. But I love both this concept and its name. Between the depression and the M.E. and the State of the Union, I’m having an increasingly hard time getting any sleep. I just wish being AWAKE YES I’M AWAKE YES I DO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS OH ISN’T THAT A LOVELY SUNRISE? would wreak some actual vengeance on the conditions and people who are responsible for my near-insomnia.
I hope, dear reader, that my ruminations provide some conceptual cud for your synapses to masticate at the pace of your choosing. And don’t forget: enable is still waiting for us…
- Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D. “Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression,” Psychology Today (on line). April 20, 2016.