What cows teach us about healing the pain of regret
I can be such a cow sometimes. I can chew my cud with the biggest and dumbest of them.
Cows are “ruminants,” which are animals with a stomach that has multiple compartments.
Ruminants also regurgitate their food. This partially broken down food is known as “cud.”
It’s said that these animals have a “thoughtful” expression on their faces while they chew their cuds. This explains the origins of “ruminate,” which is derived from the Latin ruminare, meaning “to think.”
I’d say their cud-chewing expression is closer to doleful, knowing how I feel when I chew my cud.
My cud isn’t grass and hay. It’s all the embarrassing things I’ve said, the bone-headed mistakes I’ve made, the wounds I harbor.
I’m prone to regurgitate and chew on that crud until I have indigestion. I mean, I can remember dumb things I said clear back in the sixth grade.
I swear I have fifteen brain compartments devoted solely to digesting pain and embarrassment. But in a ruminant, multiple stomachs actually aid digestion. In my case, the crud grows and gets more toxic the more I chew on it.
I’ve discovered three truths for digesting pain, embarrassment, guilt, and regret, and actually deriving nutrition from them:
1. Forgive yourself
“How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Peter asked Christ.
“I say not unto thee, until seven times,” Christ responded, “but, until seventy times seven.”
On another occasion He taught, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Forgiveness applies to ourselves, too.
It’s hard to have healthy relationships with others when we haven’t been reconciled with ourselves and our own mistakes. The guilty man sees guilt in others. Our anger toward others usually masks anger toward ourselves.
If we’ve truly repented of our mistakes, we can stop beating ourselves up over them. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness,” Christ told us, “and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.”
If He forgets our mistakes, don’t we have permission to forget them, too?
2. Forget yourself
I’ve found that the best way to stop ruminating on my own sorry life is to forget myself and serve others.
When Christ counseled us to forget ourselves and lose our lives, He wasn’t calling us to a hard, sacrificial life. He was inviting us to an easier, more peaceful, more joyful life.
I think one reason we struggle with forgiving ourselves is because we worry that no matter how good we feel about ourselves, we’ve still hurt other people. And that’s exactly the point: We can make up for the things we’ve done to hurt others by forgetting ourselves and serving them.
Self-forgetful service is the only path to peace and redemption.
3. Change yourself
I can easily sink into depression when I rehash past experiences and rerun them in my mind over and over again.
Dr. David Burns, renowned expert on depression and author of Feeling Good, has concluded after decades of research that the primary source of depression is prolonged immersion in distorted thinking. (In other words, chewing cud.)
And in the past, scientists have taught that our brains are hardwired and unchangeable. If you’re prone to depression, went the thinking, you’re forever doomed with that tendency.
But cutting-edge research has uncovered an empowering process called “neuroplasticity.” Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz explains,
“The hardware of the brain is far from fixed at birth. Instead, it is dynamic and malleable…
“Conscious thoughts and volitions can, and do, play a powerful causal role in the world, including influencing the activity in the brain. Willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function. The exertion of willful effort generates physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure. The result is directed neuroplasticity.”
In short, sustained positive and productive thinking can actually rewire our brains to overcome tendencies like depression.
Sharon Begley details the startling and overwhelmingly positive results of cognitive therapy used on depressed and OCD patients in her enlightening book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
We’re not doomed by our past or our birth. Rehashing our mistakes, wallowing in our embarrassments, holding onto our pain solves nothing.
We can forgive ourselves and others. We can forget ourselves and serve others. We can rewire our brains to think more positively and productively.
And as we do so, the crud we’ve chewed in the past can stop poisoning us and instead, can heal and strengthen us.
Maybe instead of telling each other, “Don’t have a cow,” we should instead say, “Don’t be a cow.”