The Overexamined Life

I started keeping a journal when I was in second grade because somebody got one for me and when you’re a child every gift comes with an associated obligation. My first entry is almost comically quotidian: a simple description of where I went and what I did that day, written like a captain’s log, with no mention of my feelings or inner life other than my annoyance at having to wash my face. “See you tomorrow,” I concluded. “If I get to it.”

I did get to it the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. My past is littered with a series of started-and-abandoned projects (a musical about Hillary Clinton, a better map of the most confusing building in Detroit), but somehow my journals never became one of them. Though I haven’t always written every day, or even every week, I have kept a journal relatively consistently throughout the 24 years since that first boring entry.

Although a journal typically serves as a vehicle to examine one’s life, ironically, I never really examined my journal-keeping itself until sitting down to write this piece. And what I realized is that I’m still not really sure why I’ve kept it up. This is very much not an essay about why keeping a journal is great and you should do it too—although I have mostly enjoyed keeping a journal, or at least have been compelled to keep doing it for reasons I don’t understand, I can’t honestly claim that it has brought me any particular benefit. Like many pieces of my life, it was just something I fell into without paying much attention, not something I intentionally set out to do. I can say that after 24 years of keeping a journal I start to feel weird if I go too long without writing an update, but that isn’t proof that it’s doing anything good for me—I imagine 24 years of smoking would leave me feeling pretty weird if I went too long without a cigarette, too.

I sometimes suspect that journaling is just a hack to give my life a sense of meaning. It’s hard not to look at the shelf of volumes in my closet—20 so far, plus the one in progress on my bedside table—and not feel like their physical heft means my life has actually amounted to something. Of course, this is an illusion, and an easily punctured one at that: flip open to a random page and you’re a hundred times as likely to find scribbles about thoughts or anxieties that I’ve long since forgotten than you are to find a record of anything I’ve actually accomplished. Still, if you believe, as I do, that life is inherently meaningless and that all meaning you find in it is subjective, then there’s actually no difference between the illusion of meaning and the real thing. Best to find those illusions where you can and never look back.

Though my life has been full of many close relationships, my most intense relationship has always been with myself. This is true for all of us, of course, but there’s a unique way in which the act of journaling externalizes and personifies that self: although I rarely think of it this explicitly, I must be writing to some other version of myself, and putting my thoughts down on paper makes that other self feel more separate from “me” than it’d feel if I was just talking to myself in my head. My journals drove an ex of mine crazy—she imagined them as full of secrets she wasn’t privy to—but the truth is if she’d read every single page she would have only understood me a tiny bit better. Understanding someone is a relational process that unfolds slowly, mostly through shared experiences; trying to take a shortcut to understanding a person by reading a written log of their thoughts is unlikely to get you very far.

I’m not even sure that journaling helps me understand myself any better. Writing down your thoughts is definitely valuable, but I suspect there are diminishing returns; I doubt I’d understand myself ten times less if I wrote one-tenth as often. If anything, I sometimes wonder whether the intense chronicling of my own life keeps me trapped in outdated narratives about myself that I should outgrow. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life isn’t necessarily any better.

Over the past few years, as I’ve gotten deeper into meditation, I’ve started to see journaling as its opposite. Meditation is all about reducing ego, about realizing that this thing you call “yourself” is an illusion that breaks down if you interrogate it too closely. Journaling, meanwhile, is an act of self-mythologizing. Even if I’m critical of myself in my journals, which I often am, the act inevitably furthers my perception of myself as the main character in my own life. Of course, to some extent that perception is subjectively true for all of us, but the older I get the more convinced I am that the key to happiness is pushing yourself outside that perception as much as possible.

Still, I find myself revisiting my old journals often. There’s something comforting about finding a years-old entry where I was so upset about something that I didn’t even bother to specify what it was—assuming my future self would always remember—and realizing that I now have no idea what it was that made me so bothered. Or rereading something from when I was 15 and realizing that, for all the ways I’ve grown and changed in the intervening decade and a half, some immutable “me-ness” has remained consistent.

I’m not going to stop keeping a journal. But I might start thinking about them just a little bit differently: less as a necessity, more as a hobby. And as something that, like all vices, is best pursued in moderation.

Yours in just now realizing I never made a joke about my journals being my actual super secret diary,