A Simple Tool to Help You Make Sense of Life
Picture by Hannah Olinger
According to the experts, writing in a journal can help you reduce stress, increase creativity, solve problems, and manage conflict. I’ve also found it to be an incredibly helpful tool for making sense of our personal histories. If you’re new to the practice I have a longer post and podcast on journaling here. But in this season of reflection as the new year begins, here are four key themes a journal can help you track to bring clarity to your experience.
Four Big Themes
Picture by Thom Holmes
My first journal was an A4 soft-cover notepad—large, clumsy and not particularly durable. I’ve since moved to A5 spiral-bound hardback notepads, but I can still remember the moment I realised that writing something down helped me get it off my chest. Having journaled for over twenty years now, I see that most of what I write tends to fall under a few main headings:
I’ve written about life’s highs: like the time I was offered my first book contract, and the joys and discoveries of the recent sabbatical I took, and that day in Ullapool years ago when the rainbow landed right at our feet.
I’ve written (mostly, to be honest) about life’s lows: hashing out the seasons of stress, the disappointments and failures, the times when the publishing contracts didn’t come and when there were no rainbows at our feet. Getting these down on the page helped stop them swirling endlessly in my head.
Then there are life’s questions: Am I still in the right place doing the right job? Why doesn’t God always heal? How do I deal with that difficult person?
And there’s been plenty of brainstorming life’s possibilities: Oh, the books I’d like to write! The media projects I’d like to do! Opportunities, big ideas and silly dreams all get scribbled out onto those pages, then dog-eared and tagged for later review.
Reading Your Life
Picture by Attentie Attentie
Now here’s the thing: when you do this for a while and then read back over that history, patterns can emerge. You can start to see what the Highs you’ve recorded say about what you value. You can see what led to the Lows and what resulted from them. You can see which of those Possibilities are recurring dreams that may in fact be divine callings. You can start making sense of your life.
I have now written two memoirs based on my journals. With the first, it took me two weeks to read through ten years of diaries, and it was an intense fortnight. Some days Merryn came home to find me lost in wonder as I re-read the Highs. Other days she’d find me in the depths as I relived the Lows. But that exercise helped me connect dots I hadn’t connected in a decade:
I saw how positive change was almost always preceded by a time of turmoil.
I saw how the worst Lows led to better service to others.
I saw how closed doors led to new opportunities.
I saw the hand of God when I hadn’t seen it before.
I can go weeks without writing in my journal—it’s a myth that you have to write in one every day. But there is gold to be found in those Highs, Lows, Questions and Possibilities—great lessons hidden in our personal histories—and a journal can help you find them. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Start journaling
Keep it simple. Record something that gave you a lift, made you sad or angry, or got you thinking. Pick one of the highs, lows, questions or possibilities themes as a guide. What’s going on in your soul right now?
2. Read over your entries in three month’s time
Head to the countryside/quiet room/coffee shop and read through what you’ve written so far. Do you see any patterns emerging, prayers answered, or questions leading to insights yet? (No problem if not. Life is a series of seasons, some of which can be dominated with questions alone)
3. Read your entire journal at the end of the year
October-November can be a good moment to do this as it allows time for any insights to be reflected on, celebrated, or taken into the new year as growth goals.
4. Share your progress with a friend
Lessons shared become lessons grounded, and others can benefit from what we’ve learned.
Talk to Me
What have you learnt about yourself through journaling? Leave a comment below or call me using the ‘Send Voicemail’ button on the right. Please also rate and share this podcast on iTunes to help others discover it!