On Rumination: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

Ruminate: “To reflect deeply on a subject.” (freedictionary.com) Synonyms and idioms for ruminate include:

  • chew over
  • think over
  • meditate
  • ponder
  • contemplate
  • muse
  • reflect
  • mull
  • mull over
  • speculate

The Good

According to fd.com, above, ruminating seems, well, thoughtful enough–and necessary at times, and there is, of course, this bit of Socratic advice: “”The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Reflecting on lessons and experiences is also, of course, how we learn, adapt, and adapt to, new information.

Regarding writers, ruminating, as in musing, is the stuff of creativity.

And, of course, inventors mull over, ponder, and speculate about causes and effects in pursuit of better mouse traps.

For believers, there is also this encouragement to ruminate, aka, meditate, on spiritual matters:

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The Bad

But when most people think of ruminating they tend to go negative, as in, reflecting on either the mistakes, failures, awkward moments, disappointments, and/or sins, of the past, or what ills the future might bring, aka “borrowing trouble,” as my mother used to call it (before telling us to cut it out).

Jesus even had something to say about borrowing trouble from the future:

(Do) not worry…,” He said, “for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34, NIV).

Of course, we all know that the only time period in which we can make a difference is right now. This very minute. And even right now, our ability to control (change) anything (or anyone) usually “stops at our skin,” as my brother Doug says.

Of course there are times when we ruminate, more like fantasize, over what lovely things might come our way, or what might have been, if only…

And there are those memories tinged with regret, the emotional detritus of past selfishness, immaturity, foolishness…another kind “if only”…

But if you think about it, ruminating, whether good, bad, ugly–or even pleasant–is frequently harmful, if only by just being a distraction that impedes our knowledge of–and interaction with–what is taking place right now, you know, the only time period in which we can actually make a difference, engage in something good, or run screaming from something bad.

But there are plenty of warnings against a more serious kind of ruminating, what the Bible terms “vain imagination,” i.e., in the spiritual realm that which does not glorify God or come from Him.

And when it comes to vain imagination, the mind can go from zero to sixty in an amazingly short amount of time.

But vain imaginations plague the race in every realm of thought, not just the spiritual.

They abound wherever, well, imaginations abound, as in, everwhere a mental rat maze re-routes reason, a shiny object seduces, or an ideology sparks a darker theme (although it seems so bright and hopeful up front…).

Of course, imagination on its own merit can be beneficial. Synonyms for imagination include:

  • creativity,
  • ideation,
  • invention,
  • inventiveness,
  • originality

It’s when “vain” is attached that “danger ahead” signs, at least a few “caution” signals, pop up. Synonyms for vain include:

  • bigheaded,
  • complacent,
  • conceited,
  • consequential,
  • egoistic
  • egotistic
  •  (or egotistical),
  • important,
  • overweening,
  • pompous,
  • prideful,
  • proud,
  • self-conceited,
  • self-important,
  • self-opinionated,
  • self-satisfied,
  • smug,
  • stuck-up,
  • swellheaded,
  • vainglorious

Not hard to figure out what some smug, self-important, big-headed egoist can conjure up in his or her wild head trip of vainglory in any walk of life. Examples of such persons include narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, and certain politicians.

But the trouble is, vainglorious individuals usually do not stop at mere imagination. They imagine, and seek, real-world glory, too. Examples of those kind of people include real and wannabe despots, tyrants, dictators, and totalitarians (like I said, some politicians).

As opposed to the developmental road to maturity that begins at self-centered infancy where food and comfort are the necessary (survival) quests, on up through the stages where we (to one degree or another) develop awareness of and compassion for others, the vainglorious park somewhere on Ego Lane.

They disregard the warning signs–or the warnings of others–about remaining there, or perhaps something like the Dunning-Kruger effect* has caused them to be self-unaware, so they don’t know what they don’t know.

And this is where things can get ugly.

The Ugly

Of course, who doesn’t have a “blind spot,” an area of behavior that seems right to him or her but results in trouble, if not immediately, at length, not only for him/her but also for  those nearby who become the “collateral damage,” as it were?

Fortunately, in the normal course of development, authority figures, experience, and/or the maturation process take care of a lot of those blind spots. We see the light, as it were, one way or another, with help or perhaps just by honest introspection (that “examination” Socrates advised), and, hopefully, become self-aware, change, and progress.

However, regarding the ugly kind of rumination, those who engage in same may know darn well what they are doing, but something impedes a change of mind and/or heart.

There are numerous explanations for impediments to right-thinking, of course, but what it usually boils down to in every realm, though highlighted mainly in the spiritual, is plain old good versus evil, wisdom versus foolishness, selflessness versus selfishness, and humility versus pride.

And all of the above start in the mind where we ruminate and reflect, muse and mull, chew over and contemplate.

And then we choose which direction to take, which action to employ–or deploy.

Dead End

But I would like to point out one more mechanism that keeps us tilted toward the danger end of the rumination spectrum: the zone where we are no longer able to choose, or where it becomes overwhelmingly difficult. We might even become blinded to other options, which is a condition similar to the D-K effect, noted above.

This is the juncture on the journey where the flashing red sign reads “WARNING: Proceed At Your Sure Peril.“**

Why Is It So Imperative to Monitor Especially “Bad/Ugly” Ruminations so Carefully?

Short answer: if unchecked, they destroy–individuals, groups, and societies.

They hinder critical thinking.

They rouse emotions to the point of virtually no return (e.g., consider the “herd mentality“).

At length, if not checked or countered, the ugly kind of ruminations snuff out the light of  truth.

And at a certain point, mulling over evil, followed by acting on it, turns back on those who engage in this behavior. They are often caught by surprise by this, having been blinded by the power of ugly ruminations.

An ancient source of observation and wisdom reveals this:

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;
whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. (Ecclesiastes 10:8-9)

And their evil intent and subsequent action, no matter how brilliant or clever, may actually (and ironically) never even reach their targets:

Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest. (Proverbs 26:2) 

A modern idiom blends the two:

What goes around comes around.

So it’s a good idea to cut it out.

But, of course, in the heat of battle, even for those engaged in resisting the evil, whether the war be mental or physical, it is hard to think clearly enough to know how to rise above the attendant emotions, let alone achieve victory over them.

But we are not without effective strategies for overcomng the turmoil, or as a friend of mine puts it, for getting off of “the mental crazy-go-round”.

The Struggle–and Two Strategies of Overcoming

Again, no matter whether the mental struggle is secular or not, from the time evil first put a fist up to good, those choosing eyes to see and ears to hear have perceived strategies to overcome it.

The first step in any kind of battle is to know your ally.

Here’s a summary of what emanates from the most potent ally (He Who has been winning battles from zero hour):

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.Who is Love, and in Whom there is “no shadow of turning” (James 1:17)

And those who dwell on His “lights,” dwell on–and produce– by His Spirit:

…love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness… (Galatians 5:22, NIV)

And that is a good rubric by which to judge the end game of an idea, philosophy, ideology, or plan: in short, by asking: Is it life-promoting, life-giving, and life-sustaining?–not only for others but for oneself as well.

It is also the most successful goal–even as the fray swirls about.

For if you think about it, at once or at length, good outweighs and out-performs evil every time it is employed, otherwise, the first time evil shed innocent blood would have been the last (I’ve repeated that in several posts because it inspires me and gives me courage. And if you’ve read the end of The Bible, aka, the Believer’s Field Manual, it is also true.)

The very close second step in any battle, spiritual or secular, in the mind or on the ground, is to know your enemies as well. I mean your real enemy (and his minions), of whom it is said,

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)…

…the kind of enemy (the devil) who implants his rumination fodder into unsettled minds, troubled hearts, and conflicted spirits and hopes it inspires chaos. The very enemy of whom it is also said,

…(he) prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, second half)

And those who dwell on his “darkness,” dwell on–and produce–by his spirit,

every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice… (Romans 1:29)

In short, their end game is destruction.

Now to two strategies of overcoming.

1: Be alert and of sober mind. (1 Peter 5:8, first half)

“Sober” as in néphó: ‘(“be sober, unintoxicated”) refers to having presence of mind (clear judgment), enabling someone to be temperate (self-controlled)…(“uninfluenced by intoxicants”) means to have “one’s wits (faculties) about them”…free from illusion, i.e. from the intoxicating influences of sin (like the impact of selfish passion, greed, etc.).’

Note the inclusion of “presence of mind,” “free from illusion,” and having “one’s wits (faculties) about them”. Sounds like a mind focused on the moment and unhindered by the lure of mental rat mazes; seductive, shiny objects;  and/or ideologies that spark ugly themes.

2: Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)

This mental ally is most powerful because truth stands alone, unencumbered, unshaded, as it were, calling out to everyone from great to small. The author of the book of Proverbs put it this way:

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square… (1:20)

It also frees the mind and the heart for good and enables the truth-seeker to rein in his/her troubled emotional and mental energies thus enabling him/her to focus on the needs here. And now.

Sometimes, in the nick of time.

Even amid the fray…


Now that’s somethng to think about.

Carry on.


*Here is a discussion to elaborate a bit more on the Dunning-Kruger effect.

**Consider also the ramifications of the following verse: “Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh…” (Genesis 6:3, NLT). In context, it references both frightening–and comforting–history.

This entry was posted in abuse, Commentaries, encouragement in hard times, most recent posts, spiritual survival, survival tools and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Rumination: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Thank you Phyllis for an excellent study of a subject that has so many positives and negatives attached to it, and thanks also for the valuable postscript.


  2. pbn says:

    POST SCRIPT: And for believers, in the battle for the mind IN the mind, there is one more strategy, call to action, that enables clear-thinking and forward progress. It goes like this: “The weapons of our warfare are not physical [weapons of flesh and blood]. Our weapons are divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying sophisticated arguments and every exalted and proud thing that sets itself up against the [true] knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought and purpose captive to the obedience of Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Stay the course. -PBN


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