Four Reasons to Keep Old Journals
Kids, don't do what Dad did.
In the first passage I remember writing in my journal as a teenager, I recorded my fervent desire to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and one day become a great general. Despite my heart condition, that wish pulsed with heat from my soul. I remember writing it so distinctly.
I no longer have that journal.
It crushes me that I can no longer return to those words. I recall writing the entry about West Point. I wish I could read the actual words I wrote on the page. How exactly did I commemorate my determination? Had I absorbed Mrs. Pollitt’s lessons about not using the passive voice? Was I trying too hard to avoid the passive voice, to prove that I had learned her lesson well? Besides the note about West Point, what else seemed noteworthy that day? More grandiosities – or trifles? Alas, I remember virtually nothing else I wrote in that journal. I remember precious little about my life in those years – my frustrations, life at home, school work, books I read. Almost everything has irretrievably vanished from my remembrances.
At some point, I became embarrassed by the “Russell Smith” revealed in those journals. I did not worry that someone else would read them and find me silly or weak or inflated. No one except me ever read my journals. No – I found myself foolish. And so I threw those journals away, hoping I was also discarding that former persona who didn’t live up to some standard I had later developed about myself.
Today I ache for those journals.
I don’t look back on my old journals – the ones I did keep – often. When I do, those writings surprise me. They help me recall dimensions of myself that no longer show so prominently. My desire to appear perfect – so evident in the journals written in my 20s – seems so quaint and even misguided today. But that hunger for quintessence also has reminded me that perhaps my standards have slipped a touch too far recently.
Over spring break, I noticed both my kids, ages 9 and 7, write in notebooks. Our 7-year-old would occasionally ask for help spelling a word. It became clear they had started to keep journals to record their thoughts and emotions, and the happenings of their day.
My heart burst with joy. I love their youthful attempts to comprehend their own inner lives. I love their early strivings to set down their impressions in ink. I appreciate that they’ve seen me writing in my journals, and mimicked that aspect of my life.
As my children age, I hope they will exhibit more wisdom than me. Don’t throw away those journals, kids! Let me offer four reasons why you – kids – all of us – should keep them for the long haul.
Your Old Self Will Instruct Your Current Self
I became embarrassed by my old self, or selves. I felt callow and puerile. My dreams had so far outstripped the reality of my existence, and I could not bear to face the ambition of those withered dreams. And so those journals went to the trash.
As I recall the few writings I still remember writing, something else emerged. Virtues and bright spots and dimensions of myself I liked then, and still quite like. The self that relegated old selves to the trash didn’t give myself enough credit. Like seeking fish in a stream, I became too frustrated with the muddled water. Some patience would have revealed the fish – the virtues – cradled within that murkiness too.
The revelation of those hidden virtues helped dissipate my embarrassment around my former self. I saw dimensions of myself to feel proud of. I also came to a more balanced perspective about myself. Yes, I saw disappointment and awkwardness. I also perceived elements of greatness. If all those traits existed in life then, they likely remain today and will be part of my life tomorrow too. Perhaps such co-mingling of vastly different qualities is simply part of human life.
Aid to Memory
Most simply, your journals will serve as an aid to your memory in years to come. I have a hard time remembering whether I took my vitamins this morning; I recall precious little about my life 15 or 20 or more years ago. How did I see the world then? What books did I read? What lessons did I take from them? What worries did I harbor? What efforts did I take to improve myself, in life and at work? Which Benihanas did I visit that year?
I recall murky answers to these questions, but virtually no details. Even if I had kept all my journals, my writings would offer incomplete answers. But incomplete is better than none.
Better Relate to Your Own Children
In looking back on your childhood journals, you will live again the life of a child. You will perceive the world again as a child sees it. Childhood dreams and worries and fears and feelings will come through far more vividly than through your own memory. The immediacy of that return to childhood will put you in better stead to relate to your own children.
So often I find myself frustrated that my girls are not simply mini-me’s, with decently developed rational thought and so on. Of course they are not! They are kids! And I wish I could re-read my journals from their ages to remind me of their wonderful, amazing, joyous, laughter-infused views on the world, so that I could be a better parent for them.
The most important reason kids should keep their journals – it is so fun to look back at them! I always have an unexpected laugh – even if it’s at my own expense. The joy of living – the joy of childhood – radiates forth. In years to come, revel in that joy. Wallow in it. G.K. Chesterton wrote that the hardest thing for people is to “enjoy enjoyment.” Re-reading your childhood journals lets you wonderfully enjoy enjoyment.
I keep several journals today – for travel, work notes, more strategic work thoughts, ideas for Solvitur Ambulando, a daily four-line journal, and a record of my important daily habits. Again, I don’t often re-read them. But occasionally I will open one and let it fall open wherever it may. I then read a few sentences. And I take solace, instruction, whimsy and joy from those words, and from my life of days past.
To my children, here’s how I have gently planted the seed about keeping the journals they are writing today:
Girls, I love that you are writing down your thoughts in journals. Can Dad make a suggestion? Keep your journals – always. One day, maybe as a teenager or in your 20s, you may not like some of what you wrote when you were 7 and 9 years old. But a little later on – in your 30s and 40s and later, and when you have your own kids, you will love, love, love re-reading your writings from today. You will find such happiness that you wrote in colorful markers, that you drew unicorns, and that you practiced writing your name. I promise — you will find pure magic in what you’re writing today!