MOURN the wrongness of what happened and receive God’s comfort.

There are many things that unhealthy wallowing and healthy mourning have in common. It can be easier to confuse one from the other than many people think. The person who thinks he is “working through” his pain may be wallowing in self-pity. Those who try to rouse their friend out of self-pity may be rushing them through legitimate mourning.

Unfortunately, there is no emotional litmus test to verify the difference in these two experiences. However, we can (a) clarify what wallowing and mourning share in common, so we are less prone to assume the overlapping experiences necessarily indicate their counterpart. We can also (b) identify distinguishing marks between wallowing and morning so that we know what to look for in order to rightly identify the emotional experience.

Let’s begin by considering the similarities of mourning and wallowing.

  • Both are triggered by an undesired life circumstance.
  • Both exist on the unpleasant end of the emotional spectrum.
  • Both feel justified and logical in light of the triggering experience.
  • Neither feels like we are “doing” them but that they are “happening” to us.
  • Both involve a high degree of mental repetition.
  • Both are seeking to make sense of life in light of the unpleasant experience.
  • Both begin to shape the way you interpret the events and people around you.
  • Both shape the way you anticipate and prepare for the future.
  • Both change the way that you remember past events.

What do you gain from this bulleted list? A realization that none of these criteria are able to distinguish mourning from wallowing. Each criterion is true for both. It is as if you were asked to distinguish a square from a rectangle. You could say, “It has four sides and each corner formed a ninety degree angle.” This is true for both a square and a rectangle, so it does not help you differentiate the two shapes.

Why take the time to draw these parallels? Often people believe some of these symptoms always indicate either healthy mourning or unhealthy wallowing. When you have these experiences all you know is that you’re hurting. It is not clear whether this pain is part of a healthy or unhealthy process; contributing to a redemptive or destructive story line.

This should give you freedom to consider the criteria that follows. Never will our emotions or motives be as pure as we would like. Your goal at this point is not that you “mourn perfectly,” but that your experience be increasingly free from qualities that are indicative of wallowing.

Wallowing Fears Hope but Mourning Trusts Hope

How much do you find yourself arguing with those who want to encourage you even before they make their point; maybe even before you have the opportunity to talk with them? This is an indicator that you’ve begun to fear hope. You are bracing against being “up” again because you fear falling “down” afterwards.

When we give into this temptation then anxiety or depressed become the only “safe” ways to feel. Anything that is pleasant is immediately labeled untrustworthy. When this shift from mourning to wallowing is made, our “common sense” barricades us against the progress we desire.

Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Those who struggle with depression-anxiety often succumb to believing the solution is to stop hoping. That is the equivalent of a cancer patient concluding, “If chemo leaves me feeling weak, then quitting chemo will make me feel strong.” This result is making the depressive-anxious experience chronic.

Wallowing Resents Joy but Mourning Longs for Joy

Resentment has a way of flipping our values. If we were made fun of because of struggles in school, then the resulting resentment can cause us to downplay formal education in favor of “good ol’ common sense.” Similarly, if we were ridiculed for being poor, then there is a tendency to think that people who have nice things are bad (i.e., dishonest, condescending, etc,). A virtue (education) or asset (wealth) begins to be viewed as a vice because of our resentment.

The same thing happens when our depression-anxiety begins to make us feel rejected or deficient. We can begin to view a blessing (joy) as a vice (something we resent, fear, and resist). We begin to identify with our misery to such a degree that we don’t want to be like “those people” who “think they are better than we are” even though there is no rivalry and we know it would be better to have joy. But it feels like we would be “betraying our team.”

Mourning is sad, but it hasn’t quit desiring joy; neither has it removed joy from the category of “desirable virtue.” This requires emotional strength. It is hard to continue wanting a good thing you do not have and are not sure you will be able to obtain. It is easier, although unhealthy, to turn your back on the good thing as a cruel joke faked by people who are, in some way, against you.

Wallowing Is Skeptical Towards Faith but Mourning Listens to Faith

Who or what you are willing to listen to says a great deal about you. When mourning gives way to wallowing hearing words of faith – from Scripture or a friend – begin to be heard through a filter of mistrust or cynicism.

Consider for a moment how you listen to a news program that does not share your political views or a telemarketer who is telling about a life-changing product. Compare this to how you hear statements of faith in the midst of your depressed-anxious experience.

The more you instinctively hear these messages with skepticism the more mourning has given way to wallowing. Your initial goal should not necessarily be to fully embrace the messages of faith you’re hearing. You can begin much smaller; just hear these messages neutrally and know they’re intended for your good. Even if this initially causes you to feel sad, it is a step towards transforming wallowing into mourning.

Wallowing Resists Being Strong but Mourning Embraces Strength

Both mourning and wallowing are exhausting. Mourning results in the exhaustion of a marathon runner – someone who realizes their journey is a mark of strength. Wallowing results in the exhaustion of prey acquiescing to a predator – someone who is giving up.

Either way the exhaustion is real. The marathon runner and the gazelle succumbing to a lion are both legitimately tired. The question is whether you view where you are as hopeless or as evidence of God’s continuing ability and willingness to sustain you. You have relied on God’s grace to this point – willingly or reluctantly – and that same grace is available for whatever journey lies ahead.

Do not confuse the metaphor of running with the need to rush. If that were the case, then we would not be at the mid-point of a nine step journey. Neither should you begin to view God as a cruel track coach. The things you learn in this experience are not necessarily “God trying to teach you a lesson” (in the harsh connotation of that phrase). Too often we view every lesson we learn in suffering as God’s purpose statement for that experience; this causes us to mistrust our source of strength during these times.

Wallowing Avoids Being Known but Mourning Invites Community

Most of the points above focus on the intrapersonal differences between mourning and wallowing – those things going on inside of us. This final point looks at an interpersonal difference – how we relate to others differently.

When shame turns mourning into wallowing we resist allowing others to know us well. We become slippery – able to answer people’s questions without allowing them to really know us. With time, we begin to cynically disbelieve that others care or are able to understand.

The reality is that we limit how much we can be cared for by others with how much we make ourselves known to them. If we are 50% known, then we will (at best) be able to receive 50% of the care they offer. Shame convinces us that “if they really knew” they would not mean what they said or do what they did. The result is a corruption of each act of kindness or word of encouragement offered to us.

Using these criteria, how would you describe your current response to the experience of depression-anxiety: mourning or wallowing? Which criteria gave you the most insight about your response?

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