“Pain is something to master, not to wallow in”—Anaïs Nin
“Why me, O’ God?” is one of the most frequently asked questions in the world. This happens when we are confronted with an unfortunate situation in our lives. While the going is good, there is a tendency to bask in its comfort but at no point of time does it occur to us why we, of all the people, are lucky whereas there may be plenty others who may be craving for those little bits of luxuries we may be enjoying. In other words, the question posed earlier arises only in adversities. These could be in the form of losing a loved one, financial insolvency, a terminal disease, an accident, some natural calamity, expectation loss, remorse, rejection, employment lay-off, torture, or for that matter any form of tragedy, whether natural or inflicted by humans—the list is endless. In the event of experiencing any kind of suffering people usually start wallowing.
Wallowing is a term that is adapted from the animal kingdom wherein comfort is derived from certain actions performed by different animals, like rolling in mud, snow or dust. This helps them to overcome any ailment they may be undergoing and provides them with instant relief. However, in ethology, which is the scientific study of non-human animal behavior, wallowing is referred to as dust-bathing. Men and women, famously known as social animals, can also resort to wallowing in their own particular style. Of course, one rarely comes across someone who, on account of a personal problem is seen rolling around in the dust or mud, but wallowing can be carried out in multiple other ways.
In a 2008 article in the Guardian wallowing has been described as the passive form of swallowing—being totally immersed into something like a bathtub, a soft bed with the body well-covered in a thick duvet, a hole, an idea or perhaps, one’s sorrow. While one can wallow in luxury one can also wallow in poverty. It requires complete submission like the melancholy that had engulfed Hamlet so fiercely that all he could think about was his father’s murder and his mother’s betrayal. The important matter in wallowing is its outcome. Does it help to alleviate one’s pain? Could it possibly enable some to beat their bankruptcy? Would it reverse the effects of a malignant disease? If the answer is yes, then wallowing is justified but what if it is, no? As per one’s personal choice, one can spend one’s life wallowing in despair, wondering why one was chosen to keep bumping into misery at every turn or one can be grateful that despite this misfortune one is blessed with enough strength to survive these afflictions.
At birth, human beings do not get to choose their parents, family, ethnic origin or place. A child born in a wealthy family is just as helpless as one born in abject poverty. No two persons share the same destiny, circumstances, even intelligence and physical appearance. This is how life behaves with us. Having said so, there is no reason to feel dejected and over-powered by one’s troubles. Although one does not think so but being in another’s, so-called fortunate person’s shoes is no solution either. One, it is not possible and two, there may be issues one cannot perceive from outside that can be more catastrophic than our own.
According to Richard Carlson: “One of the mistakes many of us make is that we feel sorry for ourselves, or for others, thinking that life should be fair, or that someday it will be. It’s not and it won’t. When we make this mistake we tend to spend a lot of time wallowing and/or complaining about what’s wrong with life. “It’s not fair”, we complain, not realizing that, perhaps, it was never intended to be”.
In a research study The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by the University of Toronto and UC Berkley, Brett Ford, the lead author and an assistant professor of psychology says that people feel better when they treat bad feelings like “passing clouds”. The key take-away of this study is: Don’t bury your feelings, but don’t dwell on them, either. The study encourages people to identify and accept their problems.
The state of denial is nothing but illusory that merely prevents one from seeking solutions. Admitting one’s negative emotions does not obstruct the way of positive emotions. This certainly does not imply that one should just accept one’s adverse situation and resign from the possibility of emerging from it. There is definitely a difference between engaging with one’s emotions and wallowing in them. An example can be drawn from Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, where a character says: “I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days”.
In the Brave New World, Aldous Huxley emphatically states: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean”.
So, despite our desire to escape in the wilderness of wallowing and disengaging ourselves from the rest of the world, it would be better to struggle to the surface rather than drown oneself in the hope that somebody might come to one’s rescue. There are times when we think the worst of ourselves. We believe that we have reached a dead end and can go no further therefore wallowing seems the only pleasurable respite. Perhaps Daphne du Maurier aptly wrote: “There is no end to the evil in ourselves, just as there is no end to the good. It’s a matter of choice. We struggle to climb, or we struggle to fall. The thing is to discover which way we’re going”.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)