“Study Oneself”: Learning to Give Thanks by Journaling

Image with Title of Blog PostIn my continuing journey through Diary of a Russian Priest, I was struck by these words, which Fr. Alexander wrote in counsel to a young person:

I advise you to keep a diary. This helps one to study oneself, saves one from making the same mistakes, keeps the past alive. It is worth while noting every great joy, sorrow, every important encounter, every book which has impressed us, our tastes, hopes, desires. (Alexander Elchaninov, Diary of a Russian Priest, p. 191)

His quote resonated because I, too, keep a diary and have since I was a young girl. I don’t write every day, and I don’t even necessarily write a lot. But somehow, I’ve always felt that journaling was an important supplement to the more traditional spiritual disciplines of our faith.

The seasons when I am actively journaling–however minimally–are also the seasons when I feel most connected to God, to reality, to myself, to others… To “life as it actually is” (to borrow another quote from Elchaninov, which I discuss here).

Still, I’ve found that there are more and less helpful ways to journal, as I’ll discuss in a roundabout way reflecting on this quote.

Fr. Alexander begins his thought on journaling by drawing attention to its ability to cultivate self-knowledge. The call to “know thyself” can be traced throughout numerous ancient Greek philosophers, and ascetical theologians also recognized the value of this virtue. As St. Isaac the Syrian put it, “Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness.”

But that’s just it, knowing oneself–or studying oneself, as Fr. Alexander put it–in ascetical theology is most often associated with gaining humility, with coming to know one’s limits and weaknesses. And the list he follows this thought by simply doesn’t strike me as the usual ascetic things to include in a diary.

Personally, I would have expected him to advise documenting one’s mistakes, shortcomings, or just generally the things we struggle with.

Actually, for a long time, this was my journaling modus operandi. Over the years, the most predominant theme in my journals has been dissatisfaction–with myself, first of all, and with life in general. It’s not so much that I am particularly disappointed or that my life is so terrible, but more so that it felt like that’s what I was supposed to be preoccupied by. Fixing things. Working on stuff. Self-improvement.

I’d blame this on my Protestant upbringing or Puritan cultural roots of my American worldview, but I have met a number of cradle Orthodox people who also use journaling to this end.

But a few years ago, in life generally and my journal particularly, I consciously embarked on an effort to cultivate thanksgiving. Journaling has been an indispensable part of developing this discipline and I have experimented with a few different “methods” (loosely defined) over the years. (One of which, “thankswriting,” I wrote about in Time and Despondency. It’s where you give thanks for 2-3 things at the end of each day in your journal.)

Most recently, I was talking to someone I know about how hard it’s been to give thanks this year, when so many difficult things have happened in my family. I had completely neglected my practice of thankswriting mainly because I found it hard to come up with even one or two things to give thanks for on a consistent basis. Or I could, but it felt exhausting.

“So stop trying to give thanks for two or three things,” she said matter-of-factly. “Instead, give thanks for fifteen or twenty things.”

“What?!” I was incredulous. “Every day?”

“No, twice a day. Morning and evening.”

Evidently she had done this at a similar point in her own life. When it gets difficult to give thanks, that’s when you need to go big or go home. I needed to dig my heels into life, even the hard parts, retrain my muscles, retrain my eyes to see all that God had given me.

And so, I started a new journal and followed her advice.

The first few days were hard (like, excruciating). This was frankly an intensity of giving thanks I’d never really attempted or experienced before, and it was so antithetical to my way of thinking and writing that I had great difficulty.

But soon, the exercise became easier (though it still takes me a bit of time to complete). The trick, I realized, was not only giving thanks for the good/amazing/pretty things, but for the difficult/tragic/burdensome/mundane things as well. I also realized I don’t have to have a “why” in giving thanks–I can be grateful to God for things even when I don’t know His divine purpose behind them.  This has granted me a lot of freedom within myself; I never realized before how much I was holding back in my faith and response to God because I was secretly waiting for an explanation or clear-cut rationale.

I started this exercise around the time the Nativity Fast began, and I am starting to realize that this method of journaling leads to a different manner of “studying oneself” than I’m accustomed to. In this new map of myself, the orienting direction–the North–is not my dissatisfaction but thanksgiving. I still encounter things about myself or my circumstances that are frustrating or sad, the same kinds of things that used to take priority in my journals. But now, instead of spinning my wheels for page after page, they are immediately offered to God–in gratitude, yes, but also in the hope and trust that affords.

Fr. Alexander does not mention thanksgiving explicitly in his quotation. But the items he lists are not the stuff of negative and harsh self-depreciation or self-rumination. They are, instead, the stuff of life, of relationship, of encounter and growth and goodness. They are the same items I’ve been learning on a daily basis to be aware of and give thanks to God for.

What happens, I think, when you gratefully begin to gather together “every great joy, sorrow, every important encounter, every book which has impressed us, our tastes, hopes, desires” under the umbrella of a journal is that your life begins to feel a bit more whole, a bit more integrated. And out of that, we can begin to turn toward God with a more total sum of our selves–the selves He has given us–rather than out of our fragmented half-selves.




  1. Good work, making that shift—-and work it is.
    I kept a written journal fitfully, over the years. I generally wrote in it when I was upset about something or on vacation ( seeing new places). The ordinary found no purchase there. When writing about negative emotion, it risked digging the hole deeper.
    About four years ago, I shifted to keeping an illustrated journal, sketching a concrete person/place/thing from daily life that was attractive, funny, interesting, or out of the ordinary. It shifted my mental framework, forcibly pulling it to the present for a few minutes a day. This discipline made it easier to loosen it’s hold on the hurts of the past and worries for the future during the other Hours. (A couple years later, I started a companion Bullet Journal rubric for basic time and event tracking. The two now inform each other.)

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