Part of a recent e-mail pitch for a new book on “journaling” jumped out at me the other day. The public relations release said that Maureen Daigle-Weaver, author of “Write Yourself Free: Conscious Living and Personal Peace Through the Power of the Pen,” believes people “can derive benefits from journaling that they had never thought of before,” including stress reduction.
“So many of us live life off balance, lurching from one crisis to the next, without any ability to think or focus on what really should come next,” the P.R. release says. “Journaling can act both as a tool to help you vent as well as one to help you create order in your life from amidst the chaos. It can be a source of peace and serenity in a time when we all seem to need it the most.”
Other than detest the sex change operation that therapists and 12-step programs have performed on the noun “journal” — morphing it into a verb — I could not agree more. As a person who has been keeping journals for more than 50 years, I can testify that periodic focusing and venting on the pages of one’s private, little, blank book can be most beneficial.
However, as a veteran journal keeper, I also feel it necessary to warn of another effect of the exercise. Re-reading journals can be profoundly embarrassing, humiliating and disheartening.
Because you know how every chapter and book ends, you reflexively cringe and squirm as you make your way through purple pronouncements of undying love or hate and stalwart declarations that, this time, you are really, really, really going to change your ways.
You flinch as you encounter the first, seemingly benign step on what the present-day you knows was yet another road to hell.
You swallow hard as you hear your own selfish, shallow voice dismiss and prepare to jettison another human being — coworker, neighbor, teacher, friend, relative — for all the wrong, stupid reasons.
Probably worst of all, you come across passages that are truly stunning in their depth and insight. You stare at the date, do the math, realize how incredibly young you were to have attained such wisdom — and then you roll into a miserable ball of shame because one reality clings to you like sewer slime:
You forgot it all.
You feel like your own Salieri, contemplating your own Mozart, demanding of God to explain how such creative genius could be squandered on so clearly a consummate jerk.
On the other hand …
Having a shelf (or three) full of journals to consult gives a person a serious leg-up in arguments about when and why an event occurred. Forget people’s supposedly sharp memories. You’ve got it right there, in black (or blue) and white.
Of course, we’re not necessarily talking about historic events like an act of Congress or an assassination. Oddly, sadly, a journal keeper usually is so focused on the minutiae of her/his own chaos, dates that will live in national or international infamy often bear only a sentence in passing (if that) about the banner headlines of that day.
Had a good lunch (heart healthy and Weight Watchers, again) with the usual suspects at work, including J., who announced he’d just gotten his legal separation papers in the mail — and looked right, straight at ME when he said it. Work itself is the usual drag. Nixon resigned. Do NOT want to miss the rug sale at Macy’s.
Sometimes, though, you can’t use your journal to settle an argument even with yourself. Curious about how you described a particularly significant personal occurrence oh-so long ago, you flip through the pages and find either no entry or something useless and infuriating like, “I will detail all of this later when I have a chance — as if I could ever forget the details.”
Re-reading what I’ve just written, I see that I sound as though keeping a journal is more stressful than stress relieving. That’s because I’ve neglected to mention the comfort that comes when you read an anxious entry from five, 12 or 20 years ago and discover that the disease you are sure you’re afflicted with today is exactly the same one you were sure you were suffering way back when.
Better yet, it is a huge stress reliever to re-experience the various traumas and disasters of your life — reading in your own handwriting just how bad it really was then — and to know you made it. You did not fold or come apart at the seams. You coped and survived.
No matter how bad you currently feel about yourself, how ineffectual, impotent and weenie-like you think you are, you read your own accounts of previous tough times and you are buoyed because, here you are, now, with evidence in your hands that you are a lot more resilient and resourceful than you thought. Like those genius strokes of insight that came to you at a tender age — and went away — you forgot how good you are at taking a punch and staying in the ring.
Given what may be ahead (based on what is behind), that is knowledge about yourself that you can’t recall often enough. The knowledge might even bring “peace and serenity in a time when we all seem to need it the most.” As my journals tell me, that time is pretty much always.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.