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Exploring the Past to Understand the Present


Journal Positively-Present

 

When my parents moved to a new house last summer, I found myself carting boxes of my old stories and journals and art and terrible photographs (amazing to see the "good" photos that we saved and how they look like the kind I'd immediately delete on my phone today) to my apartment. I tucked them away neatly in cupboards and closets (ah, the joy of being a Virgo!), telling myself I'd spend time going through it, determining what I wanted to keep and what could be tossed. Of course, it's been out of sight and out of mind since then, one of those tasks that will randomly pop into my mind and then be pushed away by the notion that it'll take so much energy — both the physical and the emotional kind. Plus, I couldn't decide if it was, in fact, valuable to revisit these things. 

I spend so much of my time writing about (and trying to experience) the present moment, so the idea of diving headlong into the past, re-meeting all those old versions of myself, seemed like a bit of a strange one. Would exploring the past help me to become more present now? Would it drag me back to things I've forgotten (or tried to) in a healthy or unhealthy way? I'm still unclear about the answers, but I kept thinking about all of these old things, sitting close by but tucked away, and over the past few weeks pulling them out and reading and reflecting on them. Here are some of the things I've learned: 

 

TIME HEALS (MOST) WOUNDS. 

So many of the things that seemed terrible when I was writing about them ended up working out fine (or, if they didn't, have gotten much easier to cope with over time). Revisiting these old pains and realizing how most of them are gone or faded was a nice reminder that, regardless of whatever difficulties you're currently going through, things will change and you'll survive. 

 

I AM EXACTLY THE SAME. 

It was surprising to take note of how many similarities there are between who I was and who I am now. I was always writing and drawing in some form, which is a pretty cool thing to see, particularly in terms of the progression. I was always fascinated by quotes and lyrics, writing them in colorful ways in my notebooks and diaries. I was always trying to understand why things were the way they are, always searching for a better understanding of myself. (There were also some less-than-stellar traits that continue to linger and reading about them was an eye-opener.)

 

I AM COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. 

While I'm the same in so many ways, I've also changed and grown a great deal (as we all do). When we're living in the present with no record of the past, it can be easy to forget how much we've changed and grown and overcome. Looking back at the past has given me a greater appreciation for where I am now, and a hopefulness with regard to the aspects of life that I'd like to be different. It's taken time and effort, but I've changed a lot of aspects — and that means I'm likely to be able to make changes in the future too. It's weirdly inspiring to reflect on how far you've come, especially when you're able to read your own words about a specific time period. 

 

PAY ATTENTION TO PATTERNS. 

So many patterns kept popping up as I was reading and reflecting — some good, some bad. Honestly one of the most interesting things I discovered was how many of the same patterns I still embrace today. It was an eye-opener and made me really think about what patterns I want to keep up, and which ones I need to work on modifying. Even if you don't keep journals, you can spend time paying attention to patterns you keep repeating and explore whether or not they're useful for you right now. Just because you've always done it doesn't mean you always have to do it.  

 

MEMORIES ARE JUST STORIES. 

Every memory you have is influenced by your own unique perspective — what came before it and what's come after it. Revisiting the past memories and my thoughts on them jotted down in real time reminded me that so much of what we hold on to in our minds as memories is really just a set of stories, some containing more truth than others. When you can read about them again, you can understand things in a new way. You can almost see through your old self and understand the emotions and how they might have influenced the memories. Exploring the past memories reminded me that memories aren't facts, an important lesson to keep in mind in the present. 

 

YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW. 

I long to reach out to my younger self and tell her not to worry. I want to tell her that it will work out — not always in the way you think or the way you want, but it will. I also sometimes want to sit her down and give her a serious talking to, showcasing all that I've learned and all that I wish she knew then. But that's how life goes: you don't know what you don't know. You do the best you can with what knowledge and wisdom you possess, and that's all you can really do. Reflecting on this reminded me that there is still so much I have left to learn and it's okay that I'm just doing the best I can with what I have right now. 

 

KEEP THE HANDWRITTEN STUFF. 

This is a small lesson, but an important one. As I was sorting through the boxes of old notes and photos and silly little cards, I realized that the things with the most value were the things that people spent time writing a lot on. Any card that just had a signature went in the bin, but all of the handwritten love letters, the notes passed back-and-forth in high school (pre-texts!), the silly little drawings my best friend and I created as kids, all of those things still really mean something and give me not only insights into myself, but into the people I've been surrounded by. Which brings me to the next point... 

 

SPEND MORE TIME WRITING IT DOWN. 

Honestly, I wish I had written more down, created more art, documented the really important moments (those always seem to be missing a lot because I was so in-the-moment with them that I couldn't imagine ever forgetting or wishing I could see it in writing). While I know writing and art-making isn't for everyone, I do think there's something valuable in just jotting down a line or two during life's interesting experiences. It doesn't take long, and it can help you better understand yourself (and whatever you've been through) in ways that memory alone just can't do. Plus, I really do think that getting all of my feelings out on paper or on a screen was really useful for me in the moment (a kind of at-home therapy), which makes it both a tool for reflection and for mindfulness.  

 

I'd love to know: do you keep (or did you keep) a journal or diary? What are your thoughts on revisiting it? Do you go back and look at it? How does it feel when you do? Or do you prefer to get it written down and then forget about it, using it only as a tool for the present? 

Also, a fun exercise if you don't keep a journal: imagine that each year of your life is a book (like I've done in the image above). What would the titles be? (This is actually a lot harder than you might think, but it was a fun little introspective activity that I'd highly recommend!)

 

 

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Comments

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Isn't it funny (and revealing) to come in close contact with your younger self? I have a box of memorabilia that I periodically sort through with the intention of trying to weed it out, and I especially love all the handwritten items. My dad passed to eternity three years ago, and I can't bring myself to throw out the one long letter he ever sent... in fact, if I find even his signature here or there I don't want to purge it. I enjoy reading what I wrote in earlier days much more than anything electronic. Unfortunately I've never been able to faithfully keep a journal, or if I have I usually end up pitching it.

I have a love/hate relationship with reading my old journals. On the one hand it’s always illuminating, on the other hand there is something really otherworldly about meeting a past version of yourself again. I share these experiences you’ve written about here, especially number one!

I was keeping a journal but I threw it out because I didn't want anyone to read it when I would die. I wrote things that were going on in my head and things that happened, that nobody really knew anything about. I threw it out just last November when I was feeling very suicidal. Now I'm trying to recover and maybe I'll start a new journal again sometime.

Maria - Yes, it's so interesting! I, too, prefer the old handwritten stuff compared to my college days, when I journaled on the computer (though there is a lot more written down when I was typing so I guess there's a trade off there). That's wonderful that you save your dad's handwritten things. There's something so special (and comforting) about a parent's handwriting!

Hannah - I do, too. I love looking at them, but I also worry that it's unproductive going back to the past so much. So glad you could relate to this post!

Lailla - I've gotten rid of stuff for that same reason as well. I remember being sooo worried about my parents reading my journal as a kid and my friends reading it on my computer when I was older so I totally get throwing them out. But the act of keeping one (even if you immediately throw it away) is so therapeutic. I highly recommend it, particularly if you're going through a difficult time. It's always helped me get through the low points!

I've kept journals off and on for most of my life, and I have at least one box filled with old photos that I need to go through. A couple of years ago I stumbled on some journals and keepsakes from high school--I was remarkably the same (though less mature, of course!) and even my writing "voice" was similar to what it still is today. I really enjoyed meeting my 17-year-old self again. And if I could tell her one thing, it would be that her life was going to be so much more interesting than she could imagine!

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