Thursday, January 24, 2013

Write it Down

We live at a time when it easy to share every thing that is going on in our lives with anyone we want to share it with. We can text, tweet or Facebook (to name a very few) any information or pictures about what we are doing in our lives. These bits of information usually include brief statements about what we cooked for supper, which movie we watched, how far we ran that day or a quote we thought was inspirational. But with all this sharing, we never really communicate how we feel about the things we are doing. We end up leaving behind a list of facts instead of a complete picture of who we are. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy technology and share a lot of tidbits about my daily life through cyberspace. However, I still think it is important to spend time often with the older technology of pen and paper and record what we think and feel about the things we are tweeting and texting about all day. 

In his book, "The Greater Journey," David McCullough shared an example that illustrates the value of keeping a daily journal. During the 1830s many Americans went to Paris to study art, medicine, and literature because Paris was the hub of knowledge for these livelihoods at this time. Unfortunately in 1870 war broke out in Paris; violence and terror enveloped everyone living there as they survived a yearlong siege on the city. Many of the Americans escaped Paris by train, on foot and even in hot air balloons, to safe locations; only a few remained in the city. One individual that stayed was Elihi B. Washburne. He was the American minister to France so he had some authority to help the people of Paris during this time. Washburne spent every waking hour dealing with stressful situations, trying to protect, feed, and calm the citizens of Paris. Besides this work, he consistently worried about his own family's safety. They fled the city but he did not have any way of communicating with them. Washburne literally worked from the break of day until midnight every single day, with hardly a minute to himself.

Despite this exhausting schedule Washburne managed to write detailed entries in his journal every single day. Interestingly, Washburne was almost the only person in Paris who kept a detailed journal of what was happening during this time. Nearly all of the information we have about Paris during this siege comes from one man’s personal journal.

McCullough declared:

“No one could yet appreciate . . . the immeasurable value of the diary [Washburn] had kept day after day through the entire ordeal . . . writing often at great length late at the end of an exhausting, horrible day. The daily entries might have been abbreviated notes only, telegraphic in style, something to be ‘worked up later’ as a memoir. But Washburne was not so constituted. He wrote with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand. If [Washburne’s] decision to stay [in Paris] and face whatever was to come had resulted only in the diary, he would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (McCullough, 328).

Journals are primary source documents. For a historian this means that the information found in personal journals is the best it gets. Journals allow us to read firsthand accounts of what happened to people during pivotal moments in history; as well as what their everyday lives were like. Each journal is also valuable because it gives a different perspective to a situation. So when these many perspectives are combined, a more complete picture of the past can be pieced together. Lewis & Clark, Adrian Van der donck and Alexander von Humboldt wrote some of my favorite journals. Their consistent entries record what they experienced and what their thoughts were about the adventures that unfolded before them.

I am also lucky enough to have some journals of my grandparents and others, which I treasure. Sometimes their entries are about doing laundry, being sick, or dealing with finance - seemingly common events. However, since they shared their thoughts about normal occurrences, their lives are not simply narrowed down to a list of what they did each day. Instead, their journals are a window into their lives, how they felt, what they worried about, what they enjoyed, etc. All of these details bring to my mind a broader image of who they really were and I feel like I know them better.

We will all be gone someday and none of us have power over this eventual ending. However, we do have power over what we leave behind. We can leave abbreviated sentences in cyberspace; or we can bestow a vivid, a full, and a living picture of our lives. An image we have carefully written, one that those who come after us can read, can reread, and treasure.