A character in a novel I was reading the other day remarked that he didn’t journal because he feared the self-focus would be a source of vice. While this is certainly possible, I think there are some wonderful benefits of journaling that perhaps outweigh this risk, particularly in our modern busy age.
A key benefit of journaling for me is the continuity in self-reflection that it yields. I find that a lack of continuity between days and events – caused by busyness or other distractions – often keeps me from capitalizing on moments of grace or from fully realizing and addressing instances of vice. In the busyness of daily life, worsened in many ways by our technology, I find it especially difficult even during brief silences to be able to take a deep breath, step back, and reflect on where I am going.
Particularly in the stage of the spiritual life where one is concerned with eliminating subtler vices and cultivating long-term virtues, the growth and progress (or regress) is slow and not always readily perceptable. This is especially a problem for instances of regress because without a wider birds-eye view of how things have been going, we can easily be complacent to ways we have been backpedaling or allowing occasions of sin. All in all, the primary practical effect of journaling for me is to see better whether and in what ways I have been drawing closer to God, or not, in all aspects of my life. I suppose it is, in some sense, simply the written equivalent of the daily examen.
Another benefit of journaling I have discovered lately is that it is the context which often yields my best writing. After pondering a bit, I think the reason for this is the mental audience I have when journaling vs sitting down to write for my blog or some other public forum. When I sit down to write a blog article, I seldom make much progress, and when I do, a sort of perfectionism and indecisiveness draw the writing out until it is so convoluted and overworked that I must often fight the temptation to simply give up and start over. I have begun to think this is the case because when I write for the public, this mental audience is quite loud, over-critical, and difficult to please. Of course this is more reflective of my own mind than the public itself, but nevertheless, when I try to write in this context I often get nowhere.
Observing this, I have taken recently to journaling first and allowing any additional writing to flow from that. In addition to the quiet, reflective recollection that I enjoy with journaling, I find often a natural and relaxed transition into writing about whatever topic or theme has been bouncing around my head recently (yes, this reflection on journaling started out in my journal). I think the quiet, reflective mood lends itself to this, but I think it also, again, has simply to do with my perceived mental audience. When I sit down to write in my journal, it is not simply a private mental exercise but also a prayer. When I journal, the audience is myself and God.
My life is not my own and neither is my destiny. Journaling is a bit like going back over a script one has performed and realizing previously unnoticeed details, subtexts, patterns, and designs. As I journal, I work these details out and see a bigger picture. Also, because our lives are the mysterious mix of God’s complete sovereignty as well as our free will, we are cooperating with the author’s pen when we reflect on the script and ponder our past and future steps.
As journaling thus, is a particular kind of prayer to my creator, it is no small wonder that the context is ideal for the act of sub-creation. To reflect and meditate first on the great manuscript always seems to open the door to lesser ones. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words on originality:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
C. S. Lewis
What do you think about journaling? Do you journal? Do you do so intermittently or every day? What benefits (or disadvantages) does the discipline bring to your life?