There’s quite a lot you can learn about life by looking at a tree for a few hours. Though many would think you mad for doing so, you would find that it’s not so ridiculous once you actually do it (I should note that once you start doing philosophy, you end up doing weird stuff like this quite regularly, but I digress). The interesting thing about trees is that they perhaps can say more about us as human beings than we can say about ourselves.
In my contemplation of trees, the most prominent observation I have made is that trees grow (what a revelation!) And though this is already a well-known truth, most people seem to neglect just what this truth entails. It is rather easy to give attention to the fact that trees grow, but I find that many people do not give attention to the fact that trees do not grow out of nothing: there is much that must go into the growth of a tree.
We have to consider the fact that trees require fertile and nutrient-rich soil in order to grow. What’s more interesting is that many of the nutrients that fertilize the soil from which trees grow come from the dead trees and plants that have preceded them. Thus, we see that, in an almost paradoxical manner, life emerges from death.
Of course, my meditation on trees isn’t actually concerned with the nature of trees themselves; it is, rather, concerned with the nature of people, for people, like trees, grow—at least in a metaphorical sense. Wherefore, we can infer that people likewise do not grow from nothing. And while it is true that there are many things that contribute to a person’s physical growth and character development, we must acknowledge that much of that growth and development comes as an inheritance from those who have gone before him.
No one would argue that children can rear themselves without the help of parental figures, for the careful guidance and nurturing of loving parents is essential to their development. But beyond our need for parents, we would be wise to acknowledge that we have inherited much of what we have from those who have gone long before us. We derive philosophical nutrients, so to speak, from the many things that our forebears have left behind. After all, it is because of them that we even have civilization in the first place.
Having a brighter vision of what we have been given should cause you to do a number of things. Firstly, it should cause you to have a sense of reverence for what you have inherited from your forebears, and with that, a desire to examine the wealth of knowledge and wisdom they have left you. Secondly, it should give you a greater sense of your place in the world, not only with respect to the present, but also with respect to the past and the future. Thirdly, it should give you a sense of priority in leaving behind your own legacy for those who will succeed you, for such a legacy will become a source of knowledge and wisdom for their growth.
When you consider these things, I would hope that you begin to see the importance of keeping a journal. You should not keep a journal merely as something for yourself; you ought to keep it as something you can leave behind at the end of your life so that others—your descendants, presumably—can learn from you, and thereby can develop a relationship with you despite your absence. Through keeping a journal, you can become a person who, even after death, teaches those who live.
I suppose I should elaborate on what it is that others can learn from your life’s story. Think, for a moment, about every story you have ever read in a book or seen in a movie. Aren’t such stories full of tales of woe and triumph; anguish and joy; morals and maxims? Don’t we learn of persistence in the face of adversity, or of hope against all odds? Don’t we learn a thing or two of what we should or shouldn’t do in life? And while all of this is true of fictional stories, it is also true of your own life’s story as you tell it in your journal. Your own story will contain such elements even if you do not actively try to put them in it, for you can learn life lessons merely by examining the lives of others.
What’s more, the story you tell of your own life will always be far better than any story you might read in a book, or see in some Oscar-winning movie. This is because your story is real; it is not marred by the inauthentic storytelling tropes of authors and screenwriters. It is not dramatized or romanticized. It offers others a vision of reality that traditional stories simply cannot. There is no farce, trickery, or invention behind anything you tell in your life’s story (unless, of course, you do not tell your story truthfully). The story you tell throughout our journals is, in a sense, a raw vision of truth and reality.
It is through keeping and reading journals that you gain a greater vision of what it is to be human, for doing so allows you to step out of your own life’s narrative and into that of someone else’s. You learn to empathize with others. You begin to realize that the people who have gone before you are real people who had real struggles and real joys in life.
Keeping a journal, then, will give you a broader understanding of your own place in this world. You will understand that you do not only have a place in this world as regards the present, but also as regards the future and the past. You will come to realize that you have a responsibility to those who have gone before you, and also to those who will come after you. You will come to understand that for those who have passed, you must preserve their memories and traditions. You will likewise come to understand that for those who will come, you must pass those same memories and traditions on to them. You will come to understand that we human beings are like metaphorical trees with metaphorical roots and branches.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that when you consider your life’s story as it is told through your journals, and how such stories give you a greater perspective of your place in this world, you will come to have a greater advantage in understanding the meaning of life. Of course, I do not intend to touch on what the meaning of life is in this essay, but I do mean to point out that keeping a journal serves as a tool for identifying just what that meaning might be. Think, for a moment, about someone who plays video games for eight hours a day, seven days a week. Do you think such a person would want to continually give an account in his journal of how he constantly plays video games? I doubt he would, for he would probably be well aware that constantly playing video games does not add substantive meaning to his life.
It is in this regard that keeping a journal helps you to ponder more about what’s important in life, for surely you would not want to occupy your journals with every minute detail of your life (you would do well to spare yourself and your posterity of recounting the details of your two-hours-long DMV visit). You come to learn, rather, to focus on the details of your life that are truly worth sharing. You learn to share in your journals those details of your life which others will be able to learn from. And when you look at your own life in this way, you will begin to learn things from your own experiences that you would otherwise not learn.
Additionally, you will begin to see that your own life’s story is a story worth telling; thus, you begin to focus on how you should live your life so that it becomes a story that is more worth telling. This is not to say that you will suddenly adopt a hedonistic #YOLO attitude towards life, but it is to say that you will gain a greater vision of who you are and who you will want to become. Keeping a journal changes the way you live so as to live a more substantive and meaningful life. You will start to think about what truly matters, since you will inevitably want to say something meaningful to those who will be examining your life’s story. And you will realize that you don’t want to fill your life’s story with less-than-meaningful experiences and details.
But beside all of that, you should note that no one can have any sense of direction except from the visual perspective of at least two points in time and space—for how could one draw a line except it be the connection between two points? With that, you should be able to understand that being able to know you are moving in the right direction will require you to look behind you. It almost goes without saying that you must have some sense of what’s behind you in order to see just where you are going, and also to see just where you have been.
It’s quite an interesting experience to look into your past self by reading your old journals. Doing so gives you a measure by which you can identify just how much you have changed, either for good or for ill. You begin to see yourself not just as you are in the present, but also to see yourself as you are in time (you should not understand this as seeing how you have changed; rather, you should understand it as seeing yourself not only as a moment in time, but also as a being in time).*
Looking upon your own story as it has unfolded in the past will help you to understand that life does get better. It’s always interesting for me to look back on dark moments in my own life and be surprised at how much despair I was in. Life—oftentimes imperceptibly—changes for better or for worse, and journaling will help you to measure those changes. You will start to feel more satisfaction in the good times because you can contrast such times with the terrible moments in your past. You will start to realize that life isn’t always so bad.
And for those moments which are truly good, you will be able to savor them even more as you carefully record them in your journals. Such moments become something to which you can look to for comfort in those times when life is truly terrible. You will thereby remind yourself that things don’t always stay the same; that things really do get better eventually. Keeping a journal will help you to become an emotionally and mentally resilient person.
Having said all of that, there is one reason which is greater than all the others for which you should keep a journal throughout your life: journaling is the best—and perhaps only—way for you to thoroughly tell your own life’s story. And you must be careful to note that your life’s story is the most important story you will ever tell. Sure, you can tell other people’s stories, or you can tell your own fictional stories, but all such things only become elements of your own life’s story. It would not be strange, for example, to read in the narrative of a novel something like, “She read a great book,” or “She told a great story around the campfire.” Such things are merely elements of a greater, overarching story. That you should ever tell a story, or have one told to you, only becomes an event within your own life’s story; an ornament to your own overarching narrative.
And you should not forget that your own life’s story is a story unlike any other, for it is not predictable like fictional stories. The events of your story are always unfolding in the present. Also, your story will not necessarily follow the traditional narrative of good versus evil, light versus dark, etc. Nor will your story necessarily have a beginning, a rising tension, a climax, etc. The only certainty you can have have in knowing how your story will end is that you will inexorably die, which is an ending unlike those of most other stories—we usually expect the protagonist to evade death in the course of her journey.
But these two things—the certainty of death at the end and the uncertainty of everything else in between—are what make your own life’s story the greatest and most compelling story that you could possibly tell. And you must not forget that your life’s story is also great for the mere fact that it is true (inasmuch as you tell your story truthfully, of course). And you will never have to worry about having writer’s block while you tell your own story, for the plot and details of the story will reveal themselves to you as you live out your life. Writer’s block (or I suppose journaler’s block) can only happen when you stop living your life in any meaningful sense.
Your life, no matter how great or how terrible it may be, is your story, and it is a story truly worth telling. And the mere fact that you live out your life, with all of its triumphs and tragedies, is beautiful in and of itself. Every life’s story is unique. Every life’s story is worth telling. Every life’s story contains wisdom and knowledge and truth that is valuable to everyone. And as you tell your own story, even if you intend to tell it only to yourself, you will begin to see the beauty and wonder in your own life, regardless of how mediocre and uninteresting you might think it is now. And so, as you tell your story, make sure you make it a good one.
*Note: Once you read Martin Heidegger, you never go back. But more on this later.