I have been asked, “What is the point of writing in a journal? How is it supposed to help me?” I usually cite studies of people who have been through physical and emotional trauma who wrote and recovered more quickly than those who did not. But there is a more spiritual and soulful answer as well. Writing is a memory storage house – it makes more real and lasting thoughts and moments of existence.
How many times have you woken from a dream—telling yourself—“that’s a very interesting dream”, only to have the entire dream fade from consciousness, even as you are inviting your memory to record the dream.
Life can be a lot like that moment of dream dissolving. Big events are stored, but not the delicate and intricate pulses of perception that accompany the big events. Little moments are entirely forgotten. The brain does not deem them of survival value and tosses them out.
These little moments are important to our spiritual life, they constitute most of the life that we have. If we do not record them, they are lost, or at least significantly undervalued.
We record big events, like a wedding. But the recorded event is a staged, cultural happening that we store with photos and video recordings. The exterior shell is recorded, not the beating heart of the event. Love, which is what a wedding is supposed to be about, is not the most important at a wedding. No, love is easiest at a wedding. All kinds of social and economic support are available – a celebration full of food and drink and flowers. Everyone is focused on the happy couple – love at this time is easy. So what about when love is hard? Do we take photographs of each other during an argument? Do we record moments of tension and strain in our relationships when the social and financial support is lacking? Struggle is as much or more a part of our lives as is joy. By recording how we are feeling, how we are experiencing these events we are making an important record of our life. A record we can consult and use to help understand and perhaps modify patterns of living.
It is not just the bad events that we fail to fully recognize or record, but also the simple events in our lives. John Stanford calls it “stirring the oatmeal” love. The simple times in our relationships, the small patterns and rituals are not seen as fit to record. These small patterns make up the bulk of our time with each other. Sometimes we have a sudden realization of the power of love for a partner after months or even years of just being “used to” the other.
Bad moments and small moments merit recording as surely as a wedding. Mere photographs do not do justice to the thoughts, the motion and the internal experience. We cannot catch in a visual image the full power of these moments. In conversation we can recognize the power of these moments, and conversation is potent. But conversation lacks permanence. Conversation can be the lost dream, just as a faded memory can.
So journaling, writing down the minutia of the day, can help us focus on the moments that make up our lives. It can elevate the tiny rituals that could easily be forgotten, but that matter. Journaling can help make the vanishing dream stick around. Journaling, in short, can help us become more aware of who we are and why our lives matter.
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.