Solitude in Journaling

I still remember vividly the time when one of my colleagues looked at me with derision when I mentioned nonchalantly that I did not have my phone with me. She had texted me just a few moments prior and had expected a quick response. I do not recall the content of the message but to her it was urgent and therefore important.1 I was stunned by the look of bewilderment in her face upon learning that I had left my phone unattended somewhere in the office. After that awkward moment, I realized then that I had come face to face with what Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World identifies as a person hooked on the “digital attention economy.”2

The demands of life in our modern world are difficult enough without the added pressure of constantly checking our digital devices for updates. This is one of the reasons I have learned early on to adopt a lot of suggestions in Newport book. He calls for more people to join the Attention Resistance3, to be more minimalist in their adoption of technology.

Perhaps the best tool or discipline that has helped me personally to remain focused on the important things in life, while at the same time help mitigate the constant distractions from social media is journaling. Newport calls this the practice of writing letters to yourself. He writes on Moleskin journals; I type mine on a document on my laptop. He writes topically; I write about my random thoughts at random times. He writes to himself on an irregular basis; I try to write regularly. Some of his writing gets included in published works; mine will never see the light of day.

I have maintained an electronic journal since 1989, right around the time the Mac was invented. Transitioning from the typewriter, in which a lot of my college papers were written, to this new invention whose primary benefit at the time was its ability to save work and allow editing was a treat. It was also during this uncertain period of my life that I decided to adopt the discipline of journaling. Most people who journal write using the traditional method—pen on paper. I do mine on a Word document I keep on the cloud. That is intentional. I have given some thought about my preference of typing my thoughts on a computer because it provides some advantages. This is in deference to Newport’s admonition to ask this question before adopting new tools: “is this the best way to use technology to support this value?”4 In my situation, the answer is yes. The value is in my ability to search the past more easily and systematically. I share some of those values here.

Format: Every new entry starts with the date and time. The date and time helps me locate and situate myself in history. I want to be able to capture the moments of my thoughts. This way I can better compare how I felt and imagined certain things between periods of my life. Did I mature in my thinking over time? Have I become a better person compared to a year ago?

Setting: Here I describe the place where I am, the weather and other relevant events around the time of writing. Again, this helps me not just get reacquainted with my state of mind, but helps me recall how I felt, getting connected emotionally with the content of the entry. I spend time trying to describe in detail where I am sitting, the room I am in, the noise level, the colors of the room, the people around me or absent from the place. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining or humid, etc. All these descriptors help me relive those moments, good or bad.

Content: Since I have determined in advance that this journal is not going to be shared with anyone I am free to include anything without fear of being judged. This is between God and me. I have no restrictions as to whether I write formally or informally; coherently or incoherently. I incorporate my best ideas and half-baked ones, joys, despairs, prayers and answers to them, lessons I’ve learned and habitual sins I struggle with. Most of the time it’s crying out to God for help.

Practice & Solitude: Writing is not only a good skill to have, but it is indispensable for leaders. Good leaders communicate constantly and clearly to their constituents, keeping them informed of goings on at the organization. I have found it extremely helpful to accustom myself to the habit of writing, expressing my thoughts and ideas to keep me mentally, spiritually and emotionally sharp. Since solitude is more about what is happening in the brain5 as opposed to the environment around us, writing gives me the space to be creative and explore original thought.

Cal Newport has given us shape and form to some of challenges of our hectic modern lives. He asks us to always check our value system, is what we are engaged in shaping us into better people, contributing to human flourishing? In a Christian context, are we doing things that contribute to loving others as ourselves? To be a digital minimalist is to say like the Apostle Paul said “…but I will not be enslaved by anything…”6

Practice Makes Perfect

Constructivism, deconstructionism, structuralism, poststructuralism, modernity, modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity, etc. are useful methodologies that help our understanding of human nature and the way they situate themselves in the world. Habermas, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty are some of the familiar names who dominate these fields of knowledge. While studying some of these experts in the book Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, I realized two things, perhaps a shared experience that shaped these men: Marxism and World War I. This paper will not delve into the intersection of these two narratives except to make a simple observation. 

“The war to end all wars,” originally idealistic, now used sardonically, was a very dark time in human history. Most wars until then were fought on a local level, tribe against tribe, nothing of the sort that involved multiple nations fighting each other under the banner of alliances. In an ideal sense, that war, as heinous as it was, exposed human depravity in unthinkable ways that it was inconceivable to imagine something much worse. 

Marxism, on the other hand, predated the great wars and appeared on the scene when no other competing views of human development, structure and functioning (social theory) existed , or at least was not in vogue. Karl Marx in the early 19th century was successful in capturing our collective imagination to frame and map our shared experiences at the time. When the “war to end all wars” failed to end wars, it was no surprise then that the thinkers following it were forced to rethink their ideas about human nature. This is, my opinion, what has led to the interdisciplinary art and science of social theory.

Fast forward to today. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College has done a great job of introducing some of these postmodern thinkers to the project of discipleship and new ways of thinking about apologetics, albeit in subtle forms. However, his avant-garde ideas about human flourishing and behavior are not without its critics.1 Nevertheless, he brings fresh perspective to the conversation that can no longer be ignored. 

Evangelicalism has been a strong force for Christianity since the Reformation, and deservedly so. Its adherents helped us focus our attention to the primacy of God’s mission (Missio Dei), the Gospel, which literally means “good news.” This focus has lost its meaning in recent days and we as followers of Jesus must seek relevant ways to once again partner with God in his mission to save souls. For far too long we have imbibed in the notion that all our actions are a result of a process of deliberations in our minds, choosing the best options for the eventual outcome in our behaviors. This is wrong headed. This is where Smith is helpful as he directs our attention to social theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu who claim that there is another way of knowing and behavior is not primarily located in or generated from the mind. 

The claim that our behavior originates from other than our minds is unpopular. But there appears to be inchoate, tacit order to our actions that we can say it literally resides in the very core of our bodies. Karen Rouggly wrote a pithy reflective blog explaining this phenomenon.2 It’s important that Evangelicals warm up to the idea that we are not simply “brains on a stick” because it just might be the missing ingredient to our sanctification. 

Here is something to consider. Devoted followers of Christ seek to be like him. We read books, pray, attend conferences and conventions to better understand why we behave the way we do. If all we do is focus on the mind’s ability to go through a process of deliberation to arrive deductively at a conclusion that forces our action toward righteousness, then we are deluded. If right behavior is contingent upon right belief then we ought to expect greater sanctification in our personal lives than we have already experienced. The fact that this is not the case tells us there is another method we have not considered. 

Perhaps we ought to consider Smith’s project in his book Imagining the Kingdomwhere he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies; or Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus”3 that is an inculcation that works deeply in pre-reflexive ways to the glory of God. Since all truth is God’s truth, Evangelicals should not be afraid but press forward with courage to use tools like social theory to usher in the next revival.

We are not anywhere close to another world war, God forbid, but we must not take these ideas for granted. No one wants to go through terrible human suffering just to get us to adjust our thinking.