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Journaling

 “I write to learn the things I know.” -Anon.

I’ve been keeping a personal journal for nearly forty years- in fact, this June will mark exactly forty years since I made my first entry, on a warm summer’s day, in the living room of a friend’s house in Aptos, California, her dog at my feet. I know the details because that’s what I wrote, a kind of “Testing, testing” entry, to see how it felt. Evidently it felt okay, because I’ve never stopped, through twelve and one third volumes (the latter being the current one), full of hand written thoughts, comments, complaints, fears resentments, expressions of gratitude, memories and intentions- the full gamut of my experiences over four decades.

I had been thinking for years about keeping some kind of record, but (as with so many other things during that fraught period of my life) I never seemed to get around to it. It wasn’t until my friend shared her journaling that I saw how it could be done, with a blank book, easily available at any stationary or office supply store. She gifted me with my first book, I made my first entries and I was hooked.

I want to define what I mean by “Journaling”. When I look for definitions of “Journal”, I see that some sources use the word as a synonym for “Diary”, or “Log”. That’s not how I define, or practice, journaling. Many years earlier I tried a few times to keep a diary, and I discovered that the obligation to make a daily entry quickly became a burden; the failure to make that day’s entry becoming a comment on my inability to meet a commitment, another thing to add to my own self-indictment for general unworthiness- but, that’s another story.

So, I knew that wasn’t going to work. I would fail to make an entry in the little, dated space, and after a few missed days I would conclude that I was a failure at journaling (or “diarying”, if that’s a word), and give up. It was my friend who suggested another way to think about it- another definition of the word journaling: what if, instead of thinking of a journal as a relentless task master who must be satisfied daily with “Dear Diary” entries (and apologies for missing a day)- what if I thought of my journal as a friend who is always there to listen, when and if I have something to say, but demands nothing? What if my friend would be perfectly, non-judgmentally, happy with a small pencil drawing or a water color, with dirty words scrawled across the page with a red crayon or a multi-colored doodle? Above all, what if my journal did not reproach me for making entries irregularly, even if days or weeks went by? That would be a good friend, worth having and keeping by my side- and so I have done.

But, you might ask, of what use is it? Even though we’ve made it easier, why bother? Glad you asked.

First (and to get this out of the way), there is the sort of narcissistic self-regard that most of us have. We love to talk about ourselves, given the opportunity, and a journal is the perfect place to do it- always attentive and willing to listen whenever you have something to say, no matter how grandiose or self-deprecating.

Second, a journal very quickly becomes a book of personal history. We read history to get perspective on the present. What did I do the last time this situation presented itself? What was I thinking then, and how does that compare to what I’m thinking now? Am I happy with that change, or lack of it? What did I do the last time this problem presented itself, and how did that work? What intention did I state, and how am I doing on that? Did I resolve that problem, or is it still hanging?

If you’ve been in therapy, or you’re a therapist (in which case, I hope you’ve also been in therapy), you recognize the above as a set of very useful questions. One of the first things I ask most new clients to do is keep a record of some kind, even if it’s just brief notations of feeling states. What I find is that they will frequently expand that suggestion to include comments on the triggering situation, how they responded and what resulted. In this way, they are able to experience some control over what seemed uncontrollable. By increasing self-awareness their skills will improve more quickly as they gain confidence, and this will happen faster if they are keeping a record.

You may not be in therapy, but I think we all want to learn to live our lives in a better way, and your journal provides the perfect tool. Granted, it can be a little embarrassing to read some of the stuff you needed to express years ago, but embarrassment gives you some idea of how much you have changed since you wrote those words, red crayon or no. You’ll see that sometimes the same issues, with the same responses, come up, over and over; what do you want to do about that? Maybe you’ll see the belief that so often troubled you no longer has a hold on you. You’ll see, perhaps, that some emotional state that felt irresistible has lost much of its power, as you’ve learned to explore it.

And, here’s something to keep in mind: There is a phenomenon called the “End of History Illusion”, in which we believe that, though we have changed a great deal in the past, we will change relatively little in the future- that we have finally become the person we will be for the rest of our lives. As the name suggests, this is an illusion. Ask yourself, if you had believed that twenty years ago, how true would it have been? How about thirty years ago, or forty, if you’ve lived that long? I don’t know about you, but, even twenty years ago, I could scarcely conceive of the person I’ve become since then. I know that I’ve changed because I can read what I wrote, twenty years ago, because I’ve kept a journal. So long as we live, there is no age after which we will no longer change, and your journal will allow you to honor and celebrate that change.

Sound interesting, but why start now, when there are all these unjournaled years? How about because you’re not getting any younger, and because you are still not who you will become, and the story of that transformation, whatever the duration, will be very interesting- to you, and whomever comes after you. But here’s the main thing, folks: journal keeping is fun. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s cathartic, like talking to an old friend; it’s educational, it’s cheap and easy; what’s not to like?

So, here’s what I suggest: hie yourself down to the nearest office supply store- local, brick and mortar, locally owned, if possible- and pick up a blank book of some kind. You’re also likely to find a selection at your local Walgreen’s, or similar outlet. Decide what feels most like “your” journal- spiral bound or book-like? Lined or unlined? Colored pages or white? Whatever it is, buy it and take it home, as an act of faith. Leave the book, with a pen, out where you can see it. Just let it sit there, if that’s what you want to do. Then, eventually, when you feel the urge, go with it. Pick up the book, open it, write the date and maybe the words, “Hi, there. Who are you?” You may not have an answer to that question for days, but you’ve started a conversation with yourself that may last for years, such that you may wonder how you ever did without it. That’s been my experience, and I truly hope it comes to be yours.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. I’ll be back next week with thoughts on some other subject. I’ve got a million of ’em.

Until then, Happy Trails, Pardners, and be well.  -Buffalo