Introspection: “the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes” (New Oxford American Dictionary). This word is not a part of the vocabulary of the American culture, especially in the generation of students currently in college. Most of us attend college to follow the path we think our life is leading us down. We finally declare our major halfway through college and hope we’re on the right track. Every day we make decisions about who we are by what we wear, how we talk, how we interact with other people. And before we know it, we are through college and have to find a job. And in a panicked moment, after no one is emailing or calling us back about our resume, we wonder who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. But we don’t know who we are because the days have passed in a blur of grayish memories. We haven’t digested our thoughts or searched our hearts to understand where God has been leading us.
We lack time
We do not digest our thoughts because we think we do not have time to do so. American culture is obsessed with saving time. Make it faster, simpler, easier. So we are marketed things that will save us time. Dollar General’s slogan is “Save time. Save money. Every day!” (The only thing that we might like more than saving time is saving money, so why not combine them?) Paying bills online, automatic shower cleaners, universal remotes, GPS’s, and robotic vacuums are just a few examples of devices meant to save us time. There is a new app put out by Chase Bank for quick check depositing: just take a picture of your check and it is money in the bank.
Some of these things legitimately help save us time, like dishwashers. And saving time so that there is time to do other things is not a bad thing. But a lot of these fads just add time and in the end they might not save us money, like muscle stimulators. Online shopping saves me time from going to the bookstore. At the same time, I end up buying the book I was looking for, and that workout DVD that I saw at Target last week, and a dress that I will try on when it arrives but probably will return because I am not sure I love it. I was supposed to be saving time (and money!) by doing my shopping from my living room, but instead I spent two hours surfing around when it would have taken me forty minutes to walk to the store and back (and I would not have bought that dress!).
Basically, we are conditioned to expect instant results. We need to know how to cook beets so we “Google it,” (especially since Google is always getting faster) and in less than a minute we can be back in the kitchen cooking those beets. I am glad we can use such a powerful and fast information source, but it fools us to think we can treat other aspects of life with the same demanding and shallow attitude.
Why do we go day after day without writing or thinking about a single thought we have had that day? We groggily rise from our beds, stumble through our morning regimen, and transport ourselves to work or class. All day we are engrossed in what we are doing. Once we get home, we eat, do homework, work out, do laundry, have a random dance party. The evening is spent “unwinding”–watching T.V., playing a video game, sorting out those piles of junk on our desks. Then we realize we will not be able to get up if we do not go to bed. And we have gone a whole day without thinking about what we did or to whom we talked or why.
We are lazy
We do not digest our lives because we are lazy. If Being Lazy and Not Having Time were married ideas, the baby ideas they produced would be American. Because our culture of “Give it to me, now,” and “I won’t do anything that takes longer than five minutes to complete,” has given us permission to be lazy, we do not make the effort to think about our days, even if we can convince ourselves it is important to do. We avoid things that take time and effort. For example, we text instead of call. We do not want to inconvenience ourselves or anyone else by interrupting them, so we text them. That way we do not get caught talking for an undetermined period of time. We go out to eat instead of making dinner. We watch T.V. instead of debriefing with our roommate or our journal. We ignore the day instead of reflecting on it.
I have been thinking about this problem/solution for over a year yet I haven’t quite followed my own advice. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote June 5, 2010:
“One cannot go to bed at night after having surfed the web for several hours or watched T.V. or spoken on the phone, and be aware of the state of his or her soul. It takes time to become self-aware, and to be aware of what has happened to you during the day. Processing involves time in solitude, removal from distractions, and careful inward self-examination (and a cup of coffee to keep you company). Every day this week, I have come home from work, made supper, and watched T.V. until I shower and go to bed. Lying in bed for the 20 seconds before I fall asleep, I realize that, again, I have neglected to deal with everything that I thought throughout the day, and I have neglected to talk with God about it. Imagine if people everywhere, of any faith and any background, digested the events and thoughts of their days. I think we would be living in a very different world, however better or worse. Or, what if all believers everywhere had a conversation with God about their day every day? Things would be different. So this is my goal: to digest daily. I think my system will like me better if I quit sending big, un-chewed chunks through it.”
Introspective thinking is an archaic art form that the present generation has completely forgotten or ignored. As a result, we do not know who we are or what we think. There is a desperate need to learn who we are so that we can live well. I believe that putting thoughts into words is a life-skill crucial for the development of the soul, the benefit of others, and the glorification of God. Therefore people should at least write about their thoughts every day in order to gain clear perspective, mature thinking, and a free spirit.
First, I do not believe that people should indulge in self-glorification through writing. Some people write simply to elevate themselves, and that practice I hope never to encourage, knowingly or unknowingly. Second, while this paper will assume that the audience hardly writes, I recognize that there are those who write constantly; my roommate is a good example. Even when she has been up late working on a paper, she does not go to bed without writing in her journal. She has both inspired me and challenged me to do the same. And finally, I acknowledge that there are other forms of introspection and self examination such as talking with someone else, film-making, painting, drawing, and really any sort of creating. But I will focus on the process of writing and the act of putting abstract ideas into words on a page.
Why should we write in order to be introspective? We must write. We can’t grow or see where we’ve come from if we do not write. We have to write so that we can work out our thoughts into words. Today our society clamors for our attention. We don’t have time to be quiet and reflect. As Henri Nouwen writes in Reflections on a Theological Education,
“Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive…The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we are not aware before we start to write…We have to say to ourselves, ‘I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will immerge as I write.’”
A major key in personal development is being able to reflect on where you’ve been, what you thought before, and who you were before as contrasted with where you are, how you think, and who you are now. And this is the glorious difference between writing and talking. Written words are more carefully planned because they are more permanent; they can be changed; they can be for the writer; there needn’t be anyone to receive them. However, talking evaporates. You can’t reflect on a mist. Usually spoken words are impulsive and so they do not accurately portray what the person is trying to say, and once said, you can’t change spoken words. Spoken words must usually be spoken to someone, but our introspection is not always effective if we know someone else will be thinking about our words.
The encouragement for writers in Luci Shaw’s insightful work on creativity and faith, Breath for the Bones, should be applied to everyone. “Journal writing is central to helping us see how we’ve grown, where we’ve come from, if we have learned from our mistakes and successes, or if we see ourselves repeating the same cycle of futility–of not moving on, not processing things” (Shaw, 97). College students should especially take her advice because of the stage of life they find themselves in. Being a college student myself, and through observation of my peers, I can attest to the fact that we are wading in the deep end of discovering who we are. One could argue that a child is at a more acute stage of development, that more change takes place in less time. But children are not developed in their minds or hearts enough to necessitate such introspective thought. But because we are enhancing our world views and our ideas of who we are going to be, we need to self-evaluate. We cannot properly do this without writing.
Writing is a good place to figure out what we think and how we feel because we have to take intangible feelings and nebulous ideas and put them into language. In Art and Soul the authors write about how art is cathartic and can be used to understand one’s own emotions. “Articulations of feeling in pigment or sounds, that leave us no doubt that the act of making was catharsis for the artist as well. To ‘name’ a feeling is to gain hold over it” (Brand and Chaplin 106). As Christians, writing for introspection can become prayer. The Holy Spirit helps us interpret our thoughts. The Psalms can be wonderful guides to putting feelings into words. Psalm 16 is a good example.
In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death he grapples with the idea that our culture has shifted from a typographic one, to one that includes a myriad of other types of media to convey information (mainly the television). In his defense of words he states,
“Whenever language is the principle medium of communication–especially language controlled by the rigors of print–an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for?” (50)
I agree with Postman wholeheartedly (although I’m not partial to English; I think any language would suffice).
Words help us to grow. Our souls are rich grounds from which our hearts flower as we develop as people. Writing is the compost that fertilizes that soil; words that put thoughts into tangible form are a fermented form of the thought, thus a compost of ideas that is rich with meaning and nutrients for a starving soul. Though we may think that we lack time to digest our thoughts, an important reevaluation of that conviction should be made. After all, large, undigested chunks never pleased anyone’s system.
Please see my Project for a vulnerable exemplification of writing as compost for the fertile ground of the soil. Know that I only included a series of journal entries from when I first came to college. To add some context, I had just graduated from Black Forest Academy and had lived overseas all my life. I chose one aspect of my life to focus on that would show a progression of thought and growth of character. Therefore, the main focus of the journal entries is on my relationship with my best friend and love, Ben. Please note that no longer agree with my old self on many issues; this is just a raw display of my journey.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw, 1980.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 2006.
Shaw, Luci. Breath for the Bones Art, Imagination and Spirit: a Reflection on Creativity and Faith. Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Virilio, Paul, John Armitage, and Julie Rose. Art and Fear. London [u.a.: Continuum, 2006.