My husband is an ultra-marathon runner. At least that’s the term we both knew for it when he got started doing it. Since then the longer-than-a-marathon events have become known simply as “ultras” and the competitors (if you can call them that) are “ultra runners.” But most of the ultra runners we know would be the first to tell you that they spend the greatest percentage of the race walking, climbing, limping, and questioning why they’re doing it. It’s always interesting, though, when Eric tells someone that he runs 100+ mile races, because quite often the non-runner’s response is, “Wow! How do you do that?”
Even without being an ultra runner myself, I know the answer just as well.
One step at a time.
Most of us can probably break down all our complex tasks into individual steps done in a specific order, and while the finished product can be something simple or something magnificent, each individual step is small and rudimentary. Many things that appear to be amazing feats are really just the product of consistent and persistent work toward a larger ultimate goal.
Journaling is something that I can’t teach you how to do. If you’re reading this you likely know how to write too. As with ultra races, the only difficulty is the consistent, progressive practice it requires before it becomes meaningful. But that’s not to say that each individual effort is not productive or fulfilling. On the contrary, each training run builds on the last, increases your awareness of your body’s needs under physical stress, and builds your mental stamina up to meet the challenge to come.
Journaling isn’t something you go into to gradually produce a finished product; it’s a series of training runs, but without the big mountaintop moment when you reach your goal, take a bow, and raise a drink to a job well done. In journaling, the process itself is the goal. The words on the page are serving as a conduit, driving your thinking and reflection in a way that other practices can’t. A paper journal with your life on its pages, or a huge Google Doc file full of days or years of journal entries is an achievement of sorts, but the value of journaling lies less in the product and more in the process.
In order to get any value out of a journaling practice, you have to keep it up consistently over time. Although I started journaling when I was very young, the practice became more important to me after I read The Diary of Anne Frank. The idea that the typical thoughts and musings of a young girl would become significant in history because of the awful circumstances she endured while writing them lead me to the idea that my words on pink lined paper might be meaningful someday, at least for myself.
There are no real instructions for starting a journaling practice. The only instruction for starting is just that – to start. My journal entries from age 7 basically go like this: Today I ate breakfast. Then I went to school. At school we did math. Then we had recess. Then we ate lunch. Next we read a book. After that I got on the bus and went home. At home I watched TV.” I didn’t know how to write about my feelings or describe why I didn’t like math or whether or not I liked the book the teacher read. But I kept going and kept writing everyday just the same.
That isn’t to say that your journal will look exactly like your Google Calendar. Those little-girl entries were simply how I started writing and gradually transformed it into a productive habit. By the time I was 8 or 9 I was also describing my thoughts and feelings about certain intense moments during my day – an argument with my mom, feeling frustrated about something a friend said at school, etc. From there I began to record my observations of my reactions to certain people or ideas and decipher why I reacted the way I did and what I should do differently.
Clear as mud, right?
That’s why journal prompts come in handy. Prompts provide a question or suggest a topic that you can expand on, and keep expanding on as long as your thoughts keep flowing. Even if prompted journaling doesn’t lead you to any great thoughts or ideas, it can at least get you thinking on paper, and that in itself is valuable. (Side note: For the month of October only, blog subscribers will receive printable worksheets with journaling prompts to get you started. And there are other perks for subscribers as well. Just enter your contact info in the popup box that comes up on the home page at melaniemakovsky.com and you’re in.)
We are all so busy, with a constant flow of information, entertainment, connectivity, notifications, dings and bings and tweets and posts, and with our thoughts flitting from one device or screen to the next constantly, we are left with little time or energy to truly know anyone at all, including ourselves. If we don’t take time for self-examination we may become more familiar with coworkers and consumers and social media than we are of ourselves. And that’s dangerous. Because when we are separated mentally and emotionally from ourselves, from God, from our families, or from the voice of the Holy Spirit residing within every believer, we are like an empty cup, ready to be filled with the next thing that comes along ready to mold our thinking and behavior.
Because I have short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating as a result of my medical condition I end up feeling like a ping pong ball when I use my phone or computer. I open my laptop or pick up my phone with the intention of doing something specific…..but the second the screen pops on, with all of its apps and options, I forget why I picked it up in the first place. What’s worse is that most of the time I don’t even really know I forgot. If I unlocked by phone to pay a bill through an app, but a game app or a social media app catches my attention first, I will immediately become oblivious to my original intentions. It’s quite scary actually.
But I don’t think that this phenomenon is exclusive to me or to only people with memory loss problems. The blips and beeps and ringtones and notifications are so relentless, and the temptation to spend time scrolling and adding to cart is so overwhelming, that I’m beginning to question if my ideas are my own or something I read on Facebook somewhere. Journaling, and writing in general, slows me down long enough to actually think and to hang onto each thought a little longer. Our devices connect us to everything, but when everything is always an option, it’s hard to keep track of what feeds our souls and our faith. But a pen and a piece of paper? They are there to receive my thoughts, not to delete them.
As consumerism, politics, and media relentlessly seek to capture our thoughts, we gradually lose our ability to discern our own identities outside of the media we consume, becoming victims of a strange cultural Stockholm Syndrome.
Let thinking and dreaming and self-examination become both your relief and your rebellion.