If our lives truly are permeated by a search for meaning, perhaps few activities reveal as much about the nuances of this quest—in all its happy sadness—than our ruminations. To ruminate means to chew the cud, as a ruminant; to meditate or muse; to ponder.
A few years ago on a rare cloudless day in the Cotswolds region of southwestern England, I awaited a bus traveling from the city of Oxford to Warwickshire.
The gentle breeze was tinged with the sensual fragrance of hyacinth and the strong foxy odor of fritillaria, a flower that resembles a droopy tulip. As I settled into my seat, I was startled by an insistent Irish brogue so thick I could barely understand the words.
An elderly gentleman with curly gray hair clad in tweed and smelling of pipe tobacco directed a crooked smile toward me and said, “I’m Séamus Ó Bradaigh, what’s your name, young man?” I replied, “I’m Randy. Randy Elrod.” His light blue eyes twinkled and he laughed in a naughty way, “Ha, ha! I bet you are!”
He had me at “I bet you are.”
The next two hours of that bus trip turned into a transcendent experience like few in my life.
Mr. Ó Bradaigh (he insisted I call him Séamus—I think so he could say Randy) proceeded to educate this naive American. Gaining steam, he enthusiastically disdained the President of the United States and our American foreign policy. He could see me getting hot under the collar, and I suspect it delighted him to no end.
Finally, as my anger got the best of me, he said, “Randy, what you Americans need to learn is the value of dialogue in the town square. You Americans suck at debate. Engaging in formal argumentation or disputation with another person, group, or country with opposing viewpoints can lead to better understanding on both sides. Listen a while and you just might learn something on this side of the pond. We Irishmen have been around a long time.”
I sagged back in my seat, relaxed my eyebrows a bit, and turned my scowl into a weary and grateful smile like a tenderfoot who knows he’s been taken to school.
So here are some candid observations about life. You will certainly not agree with all of them, I just ask you to think about them for a while. Don’t do the American thing and dismiss them outright. Give the words and ideas a chance. Chew on them, swallow them, bring them back up, and chew some more.
If we are what we eat, you may be surprised at what you can digest.
And you never know what these ruminations may bring back up: a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new philosophy, a new country.
Rumination can also be defined as “self-focused attention,” or directing attention inward on the self. The French philosopher Michel Montaigne (whose words have caused many ruminations on my part) asserts, “If man does not know himself, what can he know?”
He concludes that man lacks self-knowledge but can acquire a measure of it by candid self-examination, which can lead to a certain skepticism—but is likely to lead beyond it.
I hope this rumination about life will lead you beyond that certain skepticism…and perhaps provide a bit of courage to know yourself.