This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Mulling and murmuring

How to overcome the hurtful practice of murmuring against others.

Like a leaky faucet, negative thinking and speaking patterns can also persist over time, distracting us with their constant dripping.

This can happen between two people who complain about a third person, but it can also happen inside our own minds, where we may carry on a conversation between our inner selves. I call these two examples murmuring and mulling.

Ted LewisMulling for me is most obvious when I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep well, reviewing over and over an unresolved situation with another person.

The sure sign of this is that I can’t turn off my thinking, no less than I can turn off a dripping faucet. “It’s unfair what he did to me, so how can he think he’s in the right? Yet why did I react that way to him? I wish I would have just walked away. The next time we meet, here’s what I’d like to say.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of these ruminations. Everyone experiences them. But the issue is that an emotional pressure source keeps them going like a broken record. This is different than mulling over a one-time decision: “Hmm. Should I go to that meeting this evening?”

That’s not the sort of thing that keeps me up at night. What I’m writing about are thoughts that keep cycling through our heads with no positive outcome.

Murmuring can simply be seen as the social equivalent of mulling. It involves a verbal exchange between people who sustain a chronic drip, drip of negative commentary.

Even the etymology (mur-mur) suggests repetition. Sometimes within a church community, certain people will gravitate toward each other because they share an acceptance of airing critical opinions about others without taking positive action.
Both mulling and murmuring, then, have a chronic dimension, a negative-focus dimension and, third, a dimension that blocks constructive resolution.

They seem to have a self-perpetuating element that resists closure. This keeps people stuck in the past, unable to move on in life. But thankfully, in light of biblical wisdom and God’s grace, there is a remedy to end the dripping.

The classic biblical example of murmuring is when the Israelites grumbled about their lack of food or water in the wilderness (Numbers 11 to 16). “Did you bring us here to die? We want to go back to Egypt.”

Imagine how Moses felt, being the target of discontent. Several complaint stories have these common features: The murmuring crowd dwells on their lack, dwells on the past and dwells on their mistrust of leaders.

At root, murmuring is the logical outcome for people who have little to no trust. This is usually why their diagnosis of a given situation is exaggerated and anxiety-ridden.

“We’re going to die,” they cry out. In the narratives, God actually gets perturbed, ready to wipe them out, while Moses plays the cool-headed mediator to avert all-out catastrophe.

Numbers 13 is worth noting for the way one subgroup had “spread discouraging reports” to the larger group. Israelite spies had scoped out the Promised Land, returning with good news and bad news: “The food is large, but so are the warriors.”

Fear, then, contagiously infected the community. “Now we will die in battle.” This sort of socially sanctioned fear is hard to reverse.

The worst part of murmuring is when people start blaming others, and that’s what folks did to Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. They projected their own inner negativity onto their leaders and “talked about stoning” them.

One conclusion is that murmuring is a sign of a group’s failure to take responsibility for getting into a tough situation plus failure to take positive responsibility for getting out of it.

Let’s return now to mulling. Like the characters in a murmuring narrative, mulling can involve an individual’s pattern of blaming and not taking responsibility. But there is an interesting twist with chronic mulling.

Mulling is often marked by an ambiguous mixture of blaming others and blaming oneself. We may find ourselves conflicted within as to how we interpret a complex entanglement with another person.

A classic biblical case study for mulling is Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul is portrayed as a conflicted soul, torn by inner fears and jealousies. Within Saul is an inner victim that is never fully healed and an inner offender that never fully accepts personal responsibility.

And thus Saul mulls to his own detriment. How ironic that David, a musician-comforter for Saul in his tormented moods, later becomes Saul’s very nemesis. Saul’s obsession to kill David is really about his own conflict with his darker self.

As a mediator of people in dispute, I have worked with clients who say how they lost good sleep for many years due to emotional stress. I, too, have had poor sleep at times. One time I struggled for several months over a situation with another person that set me into a downward spiral of mulling. It involved a mix of self-blaming and blaming the other, yet the line between them was always blurry.

What helped me to rise out of the mire of mulling were three strands that wove together:

  • compassion
  • vulnerability
  • responsibility

Having compassion for the other person’s history was a significant starting point for me to break through the broken-record messages in my head. Without tuning into the longer history of his woundedness, my thoughts would dwell on my own short-term woundedness. But by a conscious effort to dwell on his possible past pain, I became more compassionate, and this provided a bridge where there was once a wall.

Second, I began to accept my own vulnerability and powerlessness. “God, I just can’t fix this situation.” Through prayer I was able to release the weight of things. And the more I went into prayer mode, the more I could accept my own vulnerability on two levels: my offending role and my victimized role. Praying became a way for me to halt the dripping thoughts of mulling; through partnership with God, my weakness became an area where I felt new strength.

Finally, I was able to shift from the past to the future, and this allowed me to take personal responsibility.

Rather than feeling sorry for myself or projecting my darker issues onto the other person, I was in a better place to choose positive thoughts toward him and work on personal areas of growth. This is where transformation begins. As in the verse, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good,” change starts in the mind and moves into action.

This trio of compassion, vulnerability and responsibility can also reverse the social dynamics of murmuring. It only takes one or two courageous people in a church subgroup to break through the chronic dripping of negative complaints or rumors. It begins with the open acknowledgement that “we are all in this together.” Everyone contributed to the anxiety and can now contribute to positive change.

In writing to the Philippians, Paul showed this church how to ward off mulling and murmuring. He first narrated his own story, where he could have easily blamed himself or his enemies for landing him in a Roman prison.

Instead, he narrated his joy and acceptance and how God’s purposes can be advanced in his suffering state. His story, of course, was patterned after the “mind-set of Christ” that sets the bar for all Christians.

Meanwhile, two church women of Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, are divided from each other. Perhaps one or both are locked into habits of mulling and murmuring.

Paul pleads for them to be reconciled, then weaves together several themes that can offset the power of negative thinking and communication: joy, forbearance (or gentleness) and prayer, all of which lead to a transcendent peace. These are the positive antidotes that complement Paul’s admonition in chapter 2: “Do all things without murmuring and arguing.”

But what if we personally feel wounded by another person, or what if we are dealing with another person who has a past history of deep woundedness? How do we cope when the default reflexes of protectiveness or guardedness go into high gear?

It helps to know that we are not alone in our efforts to practice compassion, vulnerability and responsibility. God, through Jesus, has already mastered these practices, and the result is unconditional forgiveness for all humanity.

Without this foundation of forgiveness, it is hard for us to make progress in our intertwined journeys of healing and formation.

But as God gives us both the gift and the guide for moving forward, we can begin to live as if that forgiveness has already released us and others from the complexities of woundedness and woundingness. Jesus bore it all.

By inviting the disciples to touch his own post-resurrection wounds, now healed, he is effectively saying, “Your own wounds need not remain touchy or oversensitive.”

With such forgiveness and freedom, we can then be extenders of forgiveness (John 20:21f).

We experience our solidarity with others, being the same complex human beings to hurt and to be hurt, but also being Christ-led human beings to practice compassion, vulnerability and responsibility. With Spirit-empowerment we wish blessings upon those who have troubled our minds and open ourselves to be part of that blessing.

Ultimately, reversing the negative drip-drip-drip of mulling or murmuring lets us enter a zone that is freer and lighter and opens the door for newness and transformation in our relationships with others. By arresting the negative momentum, we move forward in our healing and formation journeys, and if that leads to better sleep at night, all the better.

Ted Lewis lives in Duluth, Minn., and works as a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant for conflict resolution programs and church communities.

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