with

Mike Bellah

A journal can be what Thomas Mallon calls "the record of a soul's journey."

 

 

 

 

Something happens when you must put your thoughts on paper. Hidden ideas can appear, and murky ones can become clear.

 

 

 

 

Our journals are a vote for our future, a visible sign that what we think and do today really matters, both for now and for posterity.

Recording Your Soul's Journey

This morning I reviewed my journal entries for the past year. Most of them I scanned; some I read in detail; I enjoyed them all. For journal writing has become an important part of my midlife experience. I don't do it every day; sometimes I miss many weeks, but returning is always a pleasure, like a visit with an old friend.

Of course, keeping a journal is nothing new. Saint Augustine kept a journal, as did Hitler's master architect Albert Speer. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began both their western journey and their journal in 1803, and in 1660 Samuel Pepys, who worked in Great Britain's Navy Office, began what some consider history's first journal. Playwright Florida Scott-Maxwell began her journal in 1965 at the age of 82, and Anne Frank was only 13 when in 1942 she began her now-famous account of life hiding from the Gestapo is occupied Amsterdam.

To me a journal is much more than a diary. It can record our thoughts as well as our activities. A journal can be what Thomas Mallon calls "the record of a soul's journey."

I require my college freshmen to keep a journal. I also recommend the practice to midlifers, especially those struggling with the midlife transition. For whether we write in a journal every day to transcribe our normal routines, or to record a special event, or to work through a temporary crisis, journal-keeping pays great dividends. Following are three of them.

Healing

Writing in a journal can be cathartic. It can help us express and then work through negative feelings such as anger or grief. My wife kept a journal during her father's final illness. One of her entries was a poignant letter to this once strong and independent man, describing how it felt to reverse roles and become his care-giver. She never sent the letter, but it helped her to write it. I've also written letters in my journals that I will never send, sometimes to work through anger that should be neither suppressed nor expressed. Sometimes writing it down helps me to let go of it.

Insight

Cognitive psychologists have discovered that writing is a way of thinking. We can write to learn. This is one reason I have my students write in their journals every day. Something happens when you must put your thoughts on paper. Hidden ideas can appear, and murky ones can become clear. Even if it's just writing a list of pros and cons when I'm confused about a decision, I like to mull things over in my journal.

Perspective

Finally, journal writing can bring perspective, especially when we look back over time. I see from last year's entries that I consistently felt too busy and always behind on my "to do" lists. Today, I still feel busy and behind, but I notice that most of the things on those lists eventually did get done. My journal reminds me that today's panic is unwarranted.

And when I look way back in my journals (several years), I see insurmountable and hopeless problems that have since worked out. They're not all solved of course, but things have changed significantly enough to give me hope for the future, which, by itself, is a good reason for keeping a journal. Our journals are a vote for our future, a visible sign that what we think and do today really matters, both for now and for posterity.

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