Last November I took a retreat at a monastery. I brought a box of old journals, some almost twenty-five years old, and read through them. I jotted down things that struck me. I call it “reverse journaling,” although I’m not sure that’s the best name. It’s basically journaling about what I’ve journaled before. Pretty meta, I know.
But surprisingly useful.
People say there’s no such thing as time machines. I don’t know about that. Re-reading my old journals brought me back in time to events and feelings I’d long forgotten. And I uncovered a few instances where my past self had written insights that felt eerily relevant to my present self, as if they’d been sealed in a capsule and sent to the future.
As I reviewed these old messages from a younger me, I was able to see themes and storylines that unfolded over a series of years that were unnoticeable in the day-to-day. To be frank, it was depressing at times, but I came away with several observations:
I am a slow learner.
Sometimes I rolled my eyes at how much I sounded like a whiny Luke Skywalker (But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!). Sometimes I felt like yelling at myself, “Oh, come on, when will you finally learn this lesson!!”
To be fair, I often use journaling as a tool to process the rough patches in my life. When things are going well, my journal tends to gather dust. Happily, I was able to discern a little bit of progress made over the course of two decades and dare I say it, a hint of increased maturity.
Molehills aren’t mountains.
Another striking revelation is that, with the benefit of hindsight, most of the stuff that derailed a particular day turned out to be pretty inconsequential. There was one stretch where our online store was down for an entire month – a month! It dominated my journal entries and caused untold levels of stress. And as I re-read the entries, I realized that I had completely forgotten all of it.
It reminded me that on any given day, the molehills we turn into mountains really are just molehills.
My vision is too limited and my dreams are too small.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right: “God puts man’s best dreams to shame.” As an ambitious young college student, I had some big dreams.
Almost none of them have come true.
And yet I am not disappointed in the least, because things have turned out even better than I imagined. Nearly all of the best parts of my present life weren’t on my radar when I was journaling in college. I was dating Kim ant the time and knew I wanted to marry her, but I expected to be a freelance illustrator (that is what I was getting my degree in, after all). There have been so many unique twists and turns in my life that I never saw coming.
- I didn’t expect to live in Wisconsin, but we love it here.
- I don’t know professional speaking was a thing, and getting paid to travel to cool places certainly wasn’t on my radar.
- I assumed I’d make a living creating art that other people wanted me to make. I had no idea my speaking career would enable me to make the art I wanted to make.
- I didn’t dream of giving a TED talk, mostly because TED had been invented yet.
- Homeschooling seemed like something only crazy people do. It may still be, but it’s shaping up to be the best decision Kim and I have ever made.
The one constant was this desire, written down a quarter-century ago: to use my gifts to serve God well.
How I’ve ended up doing that is completely different and way better than the one I imagined in my head. God is a God of surprises, and He is a darn good storyteller. I came away from my retreat convicted that I need to do a better job of letting him write it.
So a few takeaways:
If you already have a journaling practice, I encourage you to carve out a quiet space to re-read some of them, especially the old ones. If you don’t, I recommend you start writing some messages to your future self.
Be patient with yourself. You are making progress, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Take a closer look at that mountain you are trying to overcome. There’s a good chance it will look more like a molehill when viewed through your rearview mirror.
And most importantly, yes, dream and plan. But hold loosely to those dreams and plans. Be open to the fact that the twists and turns that you didn’t anticipate — the ones that seem to thwart your carefully defined path — might make for an even better story.
The kind that puts your best dreams to shame.
ERIC POST says
I call it “journal mining”, Jason
I have over 30 years of personal journals
which I sometimes re-read for …
I am not sure why. The joy? No.
The chance to reflect on my past mental state? Closer.
The opportunity to think “I am much better now”? Yes!
My most frequent comment is “that kid was a chump”,
but sometimes I think “I am glad I don’t do that anymore”
and even “It took a long time, but I have mastered that”.
Like you, I discover I am a slow learner
and resolve to try, try, try again.
Dreams require action to make come true
and journaling helps us to better frame our dreams and plans.
Love this perspective, Eric. Well said!
Scott Ginsberg says
so cool. love doing emotional time travel
amazing how much (and often how little) we change