Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

the true cost of distraction

Paying Attention

Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.

Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.

But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.

The Value of Me

A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.

Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.

I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.

The Value of Attention

However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.

For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:

…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…

But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:

…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…

That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 12.16.29 PM

Actual Screen Shot!

Attention on FULL

There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.

No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.

It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?

Mantra Overboard! Defining Moment: Courage, and Don’t Fake Caring

This Love•Life•Practice podcast contains readings of the following posts:

Happy Birthday to my mother Chyrel, who has occasionally commented on the blog!

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don’t fake caring

We’re Sorry We Can’t Take Your Call…

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 10.48.59 AM

That’s a screenshot of an email I sent to Chris Guillebeau, shortly after posting my review of his new book both here and on Amazon. When I wrote it, I didn’t have any expectation of a reply. It’s the launch day! He’s wrangling twitter strategies and guest blog posts and more, trying to hit the bestseller lists. When I did get the email from him, it was brief, terse, and to-the-point: an acknowledgement of my email.

It wasn’t terribly eloquent, but that made it all the more personal – this is the email I would expect to get from someone who was insanely busy but wanted to take a few seconds to let me know he appreciated my message of support. The fact that it was there at all actually felt really personal – like this was a real guy, someone I could enjoy having coffee with in less harried times. The fact that it showed up three hours later made it feel very authentic, as if he’d come across it during a day of constant checking of messages.

“Hello, Lover.”

On the other side of the spectrum was an email that I won’t post here. I was inquiring about a speaking opportunity at a convention run by a fairly successful presenter – someone who has big-media connections and is definitely a star-on-the-rise. At the same time, I did have something of a personal connection – we’d met back in the early days of podcasting at an LA convention, and while they were certainly far more successful, I would consider it a closer professional tie than, say, Chris Guillebeau.

At the same time, I was very aware that I would likely get no response at all – this was simply part of the numbers game, bread cast out on the waters on the off chance I’d get a nibble. But let’s face it, I’m one blog among many, a tiny voice in a crowded room, and while I believe my message is worth getting out there, I’m under no illusions as to my “fame”.

Much to my surprise, though, I got an email – a response right away. Obviously an automated response, which is fine; I’m used to them from tech support places that say “This is an automated reply to let you know we got your message and will get back to you soon.” But this wasn’t like that; no, this one started out “Hello, Lover” and proceeded to do several things:

  • Assured me that my email was read;
  • Promised to try to respond to it on a website or podcast;
  • Meanwhile, here are a few tips that might help… (they had nothing to do with my email)
  • By the way, here’s a subscription link to my newsletter!
  • You also might want to buy something from my store!
  • You can also use this coupon code to get something from that store!
  • Did I mention there’s a newsletter? And a store? And another store? With a coupon code?

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people making money for their content. In fact, my first reaction in reading the flurry of marketing pitches was Wow, I really need to up my marketing game, I’m way too subtle.

The problem was not with the marketing – it was with the imitation of intimacy, of caring, in what was obviously a form letter. I would have preferred no response to the response I got, because that just tells me that regardless of what I actually want to talk about, I’m first and foremost a source of money.

Of course I realize that Chris Guillebeau might have simply figured that out a bit better than the other person. It’s entirely possible that a week ago he set up a timed delay for automated responses, carefully designed to be the kind of email a Very Busy But Still Have Time For You kind of man would send.

That’s fine. The moral of the story, either way, is: Don’t fake caring. Or if you do, do it well.

The Defining Moment: Courage Overcomes Expectations

Not Much Left

There’s really only a few last things to say now that you’ve figured out your Defining Moment, found a way to make it happen, and analyzed the results. You know now one of two things: what it’s like to do it, or what it’s like to not bother with the whole process.

That’s fine. It’s impossible to do all the things you read about, or all the things that you want to do. This might be one of them, kind of like running a marathon is for me. Not only that, I can give you two reasons why your life becomes harder once you actually go through this process and figure out what your Defining Moment is.

Courage is for the Fearful

“Life rewards those who move in the direction of greatest courage.” – Franklin Veaux

You have to remember that it’s impossible to be brave without being scared. Bravery, courage, those are what happen when you’re scared but you do the necessary thing anyway.

The hardest part of the Defining Moment is having the courage to admit what your dream actually is. It almost certainly is not what you are doing now, or what other people expect you to do; if it were, why would you be reading this? As the previous chapters have shown, it’s not hard to actually make it happen – it’s simply a matter of taking the time to do the work.

The hard part is when that dream runs against your external expectations. When you tell people (or just show them) that you’re going to be sailing on the lake even though everyone knows you can’t swim; when you say you’re going to write a book when everyone knows you’re actually good a math. The world is full of stories of people who have had to counter the expectations of their environment and the people around them in order to make their Moment happen.

It’s hard, but it’s doable. In some ways it becomes easier because you’ve got an external opponent to work against. I know that there was a moment in boot camp when I would have given up except for one thing: I was not going to let my future father-in-law be right in his expectation of my failure.

So I succeeded, instead, just to spite him. Ooh-Rah!

The Harder Part

Sure, it sucks to be the only one who believes in your dream. But what if you don’t even have that ally? What if you go through all the analysis of the first few chapters and you’re left looking at a piece of paper that has something on it that contradicts your own expectations of yourself? Opera? But I’m in my second year of business school! or Stay home with my daughter while I build my niche website? But I’m supposed to be the breadwinner! or even just I can’t do that for a living, because I enjoy that, and I’m not supposed to like my job.

If that’s what you’re facing, it’s a much harder path to navigate. In fact, I will be blunt: it’s beyond the scope of this website. That’s the kind of thing where you might need to look for the help of a therapist and do a whole lot of internal work to get to the point where you and your expectations of yourself are on the same side.

It’s not an easy road to follow. It is quite possibly impossible for many people, which is why blogs like this keep coming around. Because you might be one of the lucky few for whom it’s not impossible – for whom the path is simply hard.

And hard is easy to get past. Just put one foot in front of the other, one word after the other, one thing after another.

What are you waiting for?

“Change happens when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go.” ― Spencer Johnson

BONUS POST: Review of Chris Guillebeau’s “The Happiness of Pursuit”

A Dangerous Book About Extraordinary Lives, Including Yours.

As a fellow writer on topics of personal development, I opened “The Happiness of Pursuit” with a healthy dose of skepticism. I was expecting a sort of “cure for the bored and privileged” story of hipsters and such.

Man, was I ever wrong. And very happily so.

Sure, there are people he profiles in the book who had the advantages of wealth or societal position. But there were many who didn’t. Some were solo quests, some were group endeavors. There were stories of tragedy and love and a lot of humor and most of all story after story of human kindness. This is a book that helps restore your faith in the human capacity for both incredible achievement and astonishing generosity.

At the same time it is more than simply a series of anecdotes (including many from Chris’ own quest to visit every country in the world). He examines the motivations behind quests, the processes by which people attempt, fail, or accomplish them. It’s a methodical, scientific approach, pulling out common factors and then presenting them in a way that the reader can use for themselves.

It is a dangerous book in that way. Early in the book he focused on the premise that everyone needs a quest, something to strive towards. My guard was up instantly, since I’m rather happy with my life the way it is: “The last thing I need is a quest! I have to make sure I do NOT let this book derail me into some fool odyssey that will disrupt my life!” Sure enough, about halfway through I’m thinking things like “Huh, maybe I should take up that 100 pushups challenge after all…” or “I’ve always wanted to visit Antarctica” (even though I haven’t). Chris’ engaging and persuasive writing style – talking enough about his own experience to establish credibility without crossing the line into braggodocio – nudges the reader closer and closer over that boundary between “Oh, I couldn’t…” and “Why not?”

Most impressive of all, though, is that unlike many other inspiring books, Chris doesn’t leave you hanging after the inspiration strikes. He spends a good portion of the book talking realistically about the troubles and barriers that occur during quests, including very specific criteria for identifying when it’s best to just quit. He also goes into what to do when you’re done – describing that strange feeling of emptiness that occurs when you’ve done the thing you wanted to do, and are wondering “what next?”

That is possibly the biggest thing that sets this book apart from others in the genre – he covers it all, not just the initial parts, and justifies his initial assertion that everyone does need to find their quest. I thought it was best summed up in one sentence: “Regret is what you should fear the most.”

It’s a quick and easy read, very entertaining, but I’d recommend taking it slowly and letting each chapter marinate in your thoughts for a while. This is a book, like most of his, that has the potential to change your life if you let it.

find the right mantra for yourself

MANTRA OVERBOARD!

I remember when I first consciously became aware of the use personal affirmations. I’d been under the influence of them for years before, of course, from the little “choose the right” ring I’d been given at age 8 through the many litanies of the Cub and Boy Scouts (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country…”).

But it was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that first made me realize that these words and others were a kind of magic spell we could cast over ourselves to alter reality. To be more accurate, we would use them to alter ourselves, or our perception of reality, but really that’s pretty much the same thing as far as it goes subjectively. He even said as much: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Based in a Christian worldview, his short phrases got pasted all over my room – everything positive. “Never talk defeat. Use words like hope, belief, faith, victory.

I wish I could tell you that it worked wonderfully – that surrounding myself with a bubble of positivity absolutely made life better. Unfortunately, much as the “Choose the Right” ring didn’t actually make me virtuous, the words around me actually didn’t seem to change my world. In fact, since I was actually rather unhappy and felt like a loser, the affirmations seemed at best disingenuous and at worst mocking.

There’s actually a pretty convincing body of research explaining why that is, as well as a whole new way of looking at things:

…”Third Wave Psychologists” are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context–to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them… – Psychology Today

Words of Power

henry_v__once_more_unto_the_breach_by_claudiakat-d55ewdlWhat puzzled me, though, was that there is a kind of mantra that does work for me. It’s not the “positive thinking” kind, though. Rather, it’s the battle cry – the kinds of things I came into contact with in the Marines or in the stories about other warriors, both real and fictional. Starting with hearing my Drill instructors talk about how “Attrition is the mission” (that is, they were going to try and make as many of us fail as possible) and through “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!” (the most valuable four words I’ve ever heard) these kinds of words have always struck a chord:

  • “The only easy day was yesterday.” – Navy SEALs
  • “Accomplish the mission, whatever the cost.” – USMC School of Infantry
  • “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” – Capt. Lloyd Williams, USMC
  • “To the confusion of our enemies!” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • “I am ready for whatever comes!” – Sioux War Cry
  • “Forward momentum!” – Motto of the Dendarii Mercenaries

So why is these resonate with me rather than things like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better? I think it has to do with the simple idea of verbs vs. nouns. Even the Latin mottos that I’ve enjoyed have verbs as their focus:

  • Dum Vivimus, Vivamus! – “While we live, let us live!
  • Nil Illegitimi Carborundum! – “Never let the bastards get you down!”
  • Carpe Diem! – “Seize the fish!”

Then again, Latin was never my strong point. As I puzzled over why “the Secret” doesn’t feel genuine but “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” will get my blood pumping, I figured it out. An affirmation is trying to describe the way things are – whether it’s realistic or not. What if I’m not getting better and better? What if it’s not a good day, or I’m not feeling my best? These affirmations become lies, and hollow.

On the other hand, a battle cry is a statement of intention. It is an acknowledgement that things may be rough, but it is also a plan of action to change what is necessary – whether that’s the situation or (more likely) yourself. Rather than trying to pretend that things are a certain way, it is the decision to make them a certain way – or at least try to.

My own mantra comes out of my dance background, but it’s equally a verb-type mantra. I use it when things are getting out-of-control, when I feel harried and not up to the chaos of life. I say to myself:

Dance, don’t scramble.

…and things tend to go a bit better.

What about you? What mantras work for you, and what ones don’t? Am I off-base with the whole verb vs. noun idea?

I’m also a fan of the Brain Pickings mantra,
“Donation = Loving”
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The Weekend Roundup Podcast!


This Love•Life•Practice podcast contains readings of the following posts:

Special thanks to Karl, a patron who helped correct some of the film references in Friday’s post.

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be patient with love

The Folly of Frak, Yeah!

Recently a friend and frequent reader of this blog forwarded me an article which, if you’ll forgive me, I will sanitize to the phrase “Frak Yeah!” This is by no means out of deference to my own sensibilities, as I could give a fu- ahem. That is to say, I know that many people of a more delicate demeanor read these little bon mots, and I don’t want to be responsible for cousin Nate crying into his cereal in the morning.

At first glance one might think that I would agree with Mark Manson, the author of Frak, Yeah!. His article starts out talking about things like consent, not overthinking things, going with your passion and enthusiastically saying yes to life! In talking about the excess of dating advice (such as “the Rules Girls” or “The Game”) he says:

Much of it gets exceedingly analytical, to the point where some men and women actually spend more time analyzing behaviors than actually, you know, behaving.

Yes! I couldn’t agree more! More doing, less talking about doing (ironic, I know, coming from both me and him who write these kinds of blogs).

Then he begins to elaborate on what he calls “The Law of Frak Yes or No” and begins to lose me – in particular with this statement:

You wouldn’t buy a dog that bites you all the time…You wouldn’t work a job that doesn’t pay you.

Well, actually, yes, I have many friends who have rescue dogs that did, in fact, bite them all the time when they first took them in. And the entire idea of “internships” “apprenticeships” and “volunteering” are based around the idea of working at jobs that don’t pay.

In effect, what Manson is suggesting is the opposite of the famous marshmallow experiment – you know, where kids are told that if they can keep from eating the marshmallow for five minutes, they can get two marshmallows. While there are certainly troubles with the experiment and the supposed conclusions some draw from it, the general feeling is that those who have the patience to wait for two marshmallows have a better set of life skills.

But not according to Mr. Manson! It’s either “Frak, yeah, a marshmallow! NOMNOMNOM!” or else it’s “Frak, no, I don’t want no frakkin’ marshmallow, I’m outta here!” and you slam the door behind you.

I get it. It’s a nice image; throwing it all away or diving headfirst into things, either way. It’s Richard Gere sweeping Deborah Winger off her feet and out of the factory at the end of Officer and a Gentleman. It’s Edward Norton crunching a keyboard into his coworker’s face as he walks out of his job in Fight Club. It’s Cher ditching her fiancé for Nick Cage in Moonstruck.

That’s fine in fiction, and I’m definitely on board that there are times in reality when it’s appropriate. But as a law? As a rule of everyday behavior in relationships? No. For three reasons, and out of respect for Cousin Nate, I’ll sugarcoat them:

It’s Lazy, Short-Sighted, and Cowardly.

Yes, that’s right. I said cowardly. Let’s start with lazy, though. Mr. Manson goes over a long list of “problems” that the “Law of Frak Yes or No supposedly solves. Things like “Always know where you stand with the other person.” or “Consent issues are instantly resolved.” or “No longer be strung along by people who aren’t that into you.

I hate to tell you this, but if the only way you can tell whether or not people are into you – much less what they are consenting to – is that they yell “Frak Yeah!” when they see you, there may be a bit more of socialization work you need to do. Human interactions are complex things, full of subtle interactions and false starts. As is noted by the “strung along” comment, people are often less than trusting, and it takes time for people to open up.

If you insist on Frak Yeah! as the standard for you attention, you are basically saying that you can’t be bothered with the time and effort it requires to get to know someone. “This dog bit me. Back to the pound! I can’t take the time to actually earn her trust. I’ll wait til I find a dog that’s worth my time! You can certainly do that, but you are going to be missing out on not only some great interactions but also selling yourself short on personal development. It’s not just destination, after all, the journey can be quite important too.

Risk a Verse, not Risk-averse

How about that idea of “Always know where you stand with the other person.” Yeah! That would be nice, wouldn’t it? To never have to worry about being hurt, about being misunderstood or of perhaps investing more of yourself into someone else than they are putting into you.

Welcome to the Human Race. Guess what? There are no love meters that measure exact amounts of interest, either emotional or physical, and even if there were they would vacillate wildly. If you only bothered to hang out with the people whose “love meter” matched yours, redlined to “Frak Yeah! all the time, you would be spending time in a psychological treatment center for people with monomania.

You have to risk getting hurt in order to reap the rewards. You can’t really trust someone who doesn’t have the power to hurt you – and part of that is caring about someone even if they don’t care about you. Yes, it sucks to find out you were wrong, but you learned from that experience. It’s like riding a bicycle – you fall off, you get back on, you fall off again, you get back on – and eventually you learn to balance, you learn to enjoy the work it takes to ride, and appreciate the journey.

Or you can wait until you find a bicycle that you can just ride the first time you try. They exist, after all – they’re called training wheels. But do you want to stay on them for your whole life?

The Long Game

I have several friends who I clicked with immediately, and have had more than one “love-at-first-sight” moment. However, the relationships that lasted the longest? Started out with months and years of “oh, they can’t actually be interested in me. Until they were, and it turned out that it was well worth the wait.

Image Courtesy of tausend und eins via Flickr CC

How do you feel about piercings?

There are a lot of old fables about how patience can be rewarded, including a rather ribald one that I’ve expanded a bit:

The Old Bull, the Young Bull, and the Heifers

An old bull and a young bull are standing on top of a hill, looking down at a herd of beautiful heifers. The young one is feeling feisty, and impatiently pants and snorts, finally saying to his elder: “They’re not expecting us! Let’s run down there and get us a cow!”

The elder bull looks longsuffering at his young protegé. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s saunter on down there, all sexy like, and get all of them!”

Meanwhile, down in the valley, the young heifers giggle as they pretend not to see the virile bulls up on the hill. “I can’t decide who is more desireable!” one of them says. “I wonder if we should go up and get a closer look…”

A more experienced cow looks at her and chuckles. “Don’t worry, dearie.” she says. “They’ll be down here eventually, and you can take your pick.”

I’m not saying you can’t find happiness using Mark Manson’s suggestions. But I am pretty sure that if you intentionally ignore the opportunities that are sauntering up to you all the time, all sexy-like, you’re going to miss out on a whole lot of life while you’re trying “not to waste time.”

What’s your frakkin’ hurry, anyway?

Defining Moment: the big question

Encore! Or not.

By now, if you’re following the whole lineup of the Defining Moment, you’ve got a folder of papers, or perhaps an entire notebook, filled with first your analysis of what you want to do, and then all kinds of things about it. You’ve predicted risks and consequences and then checked the accuracy of your predictions; you’ve made a plan for the Moment itself and then done a kind of post mortem (I know, not the most pleasant metaphor, but it sticks), taking a look at the effectiveness of the plan.

Take a moment to reflect on that wealth of data. In some presentations where I do this whole exercise with one lucky volunteer, I have the luxury of several whiteboards. It is a majestic and humbling experience to see someone’s dreams laid out in permanent marker across the wall, seeing all the connections and fears and hopes in one gigantic gestampkunstwerk.

But then, at a certain point, you need to step back. You need to weigh all of the pros and cons and implications and risks in one holistic view and ask yourself the Big Question:

Do I want to do it again?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: you don’t have to. You’ve done that thing once, and it’s entirely possible that the conclusion of your discovery was: Ok, that was not worth the trouble. There are all kinds of things – the Marines, having children, even marriage – that I personally am very glad I did but would never do again.

On the other hand, you may have this strange sense that you didn’t quite do it right the first time. That you or the other elements of the event could have somehow been better, or gotten a different outcome with a different approach. Think of it as trying a different route up the same mountain – the view at the summit may be the same, but the one viewing it will be different for the changed experience.

On the Brighter Side

Then again, you may be so happy that you decide you absolutely want to do it again – as soon as possible! It’s important to remember something about that, though: it won’t be the same. It can be good, it can be better, but it won’t be the first time, and so you are running the risk of comparison. In fact, that can be a completely valid reason for trying something only once: so that the magic of that first time is the only memory you’ll have of it.

You may want to be careful also with that impulse of I want to do it again! One of the risks of doing something that you you’ve always dreamed of is that when your dream becomes reality, reality requires your dream. Chris Guillebeau, in his upcoming book The Happiness of Pursuit, talks about John Francis, aka “Planet Walker“. On an impulse he decided that he was going to start walking everywhere – but people got tired of hearing about it, so he (again on impulse) gave them the gift of his silence. Both of those ended up feeling so good that he kept it up for twenty-two years of walking and seventeen years of silence.

His Defining Moment snuck up on him, but once it was there, it pounced and would not let go. Chris talks in his book about how there were a lot of hard times and hurt feelings and anger from people when John Francis started his work. It’s possible – not guaranteed, but possible – that with a little planning and foresight you can have just as life-changing an event as Mr. Francis, but with less disruption of the rest of your life and loved ones.

It all could be moot, though, because you still have to answer that question from within:

Again? Or not?

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the practice of reflection

Whatever you do, don’t look behind you!

There’s a very scary shelf among my books. It contains words that make me cringe, shudder, draw back in horror – and that’s not from reading them, it’s from the mere idea of reading them.

They are my journals.

While they’re not all quite in order, they do stretch back quite a ways – to middle school, in fact. In it are not profound thoughts, deep reflection, positive wisdom on the state of the universe. No, instead there is insecurity, fear, jealousy, selfishness, lost dreams, abandoned hopes…

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s why I don’t read them terribly often. A fellow journal-writer and friend said it pretty succinctly:

I suffered immensely at the hand of my past. Re-reading that is to relive it, invoke that shame and disgust. And it is hard to get past that.

Hard indeed. But worthwhile, if only for the whole idea that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it.

Image courtesy Kanghee Rhee via Flickr CC

There be monsters…

Pattern-Busting

One of the most practical reasons to re-read journals and blogs is to be able to read between the lines. You have a distinct advantage over the person who wrote whatever words you’re reading: you know what happened next. That means you can start to recognize cause-and-effect. Perhaps more importantly you may be able to recognize when an effect is not caused by something. Either way, you have new information from which to plan your future.

Of course, that’s another lesson you will learn from reading it: things don’t always turn out the way you expected. The things you feared? Didn’t happen. And if they did, they were likely not as apocalyptic as it felt at the time. Unfortunately the flip side is true, as well. Those things you looked forward to, that you worked diligently towards until you achieved them – likely they didn’t quite match up to the expectations.

Again, both of those are useful lessons to learn, especially when you’re trying to plan for the future. But the fact that a practice is useful and practical doesn’t make it any more appealing when you dread it. If that were the case, I’d be doing a lot more yoga in my day.

So how does one get past the paralysis of autographochronophobia, a word I just made up to describe the fear of one’s writing about times past?

Not Feeling Yourself

I can’t speak for my friend, but while I share his loathing for revisiting the past, I can say that like many fears when faced it turned out to be much less difficult than I expected. It took a while, but I realized why that was: I am no longer the person who wrote those words.

That person was still either in the middle of or just barely beyond whatever traumatic events I was writing about. There were still fresh memories; the images were connected to intense reactions of neurochemistry, emotional maelstroms of anger and sorrow and grief and whatever.

That’s not the case when you re-read it. Instead you are removed from the situation, enjoying the benefit of perspective. You have greater strength and resilience that comes from having survived longer than that person who wrote the words. Not only that, you get to remember that you did survive all that – a reminder of the simple and admirable skill of survival.

Perhaps you’re in a better place now – then you’ve got even more reason to celebrate! I know I’ve looked at some journals from about twenty years ago and just shake my head. How did that young man manage to do all that stuff? I’m tired just reading it! My life now is both more simple and more wondrous than he would have ever been able to imagine.

Riding the Changes

Your motivations and values have changed – either become more refined and clear, or perhaps changed completely. You can see what dreams you carried with you, and what ones you left behind or traded in for new dreams. The same applies to friends, family, food, and probably a few other words that begin with F.

You may still have some things in common with that person who wrote the journal. You certainly owe them a debt of some kind, whether that’s positive or negative, because it was their action that put you where you are now. Perhaps you want to let them know how that makes you feel. No, it won’t make a difference to them, but it certainly can make a difference to you.

That’s why it’s not only worth it to make a practice of journaling, but also of reviewing your journals. Take advantage of holidays, for example, and spend an hour just paging through your past thoughts.

It’s not as scary as you think. It can’t hurt you; whatever pain was possible has already been inflicted. Instead it offers a chance for further healing, for more strength, and for a better future.

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