Journals & Blogs

September 10, 2012

Transformation … a word we take for granted and occasionally overuse. And yet, sometimes it’s quite apt. Yesterday, at the U.C.A., in the campus chapel, I stood listening to our host and looking at the wall of plaques commemorating those who died at the hands of the military. When he asked us to turn around and look at the images they had hung on the walls as representations of the Stations of the Cross, I was hit like a ton of bricks. Looking at those wounded, broken bodies took me to the foot of the cross. I turned to face the chancel and found myself staring at our crucified Lord. As I stared, I had to ask myself if I had participated, or maybe better stated, been complicit, in the crucifixion of my Lord. It was almost more than I could bear. My head and heart were full. My soul over-burdened. But the burden was one that I had a compulsion … a responsibility … to bear. [Excerpt from a journal entry, El Salvador, 19 June 2007]

I’ve been traveling internationally since I became an AFS exchange student my junior year in high school. It’s no coincidence that I’ve also been journaling since that time. I often refer back to journals to relive experiences, continue to think about issues, explore the transformation and process of change in my thinking about issues, or get inspiration, ideas or quotes for articles and sermons. During that time my journaling has also changed.

There are all types of journals. Some of us keep diaries for any number of purposes. I suspect a majority of people who refer to keeping a diary, do so as a kind of dialog with themselves and to keep a record of some key event in their lives. Explorers and adventurers have kept travel journals throughout history. Though the majority of those journals were probably meant to serve as diaries, they’ve also served as sources for books and provided volumes of historical data for researchers.

Social science students learn in school how to keep journals that serve as a kind of reflective writing related to something they are studying or learning. Often, they “reflect” on what they have written and use the content as a source for further reflection, meditation and analysis. Therapeutically, journals can be a way of easing the feelings of some type of emotional trauma. Many spiritual leaders use journals as tools for processing their experiences with the hope of learning more about themselves and a given experience that might aid them in their future ministry. When I was a chaplain intern, for example, at a boy’s prison in the Boston area, I found my journal to be very helpful in processing my feelings about my experience working with youth in the prison system.

I’m one of those people who believes there is no one “correct” way to journal. Journals have different purposes and different meanings to the author. But I think all forms of journaling share certain aspects of intimacy and self-knowledge as we write for no other person than ourselves … with the exception being if we are maintaining a journal as part of a class assignment that may be read by our course instructor, or used in a therapeutic process with a therapist or group.

Since moving to Colombia, I’ve found it difficult to write in my journal. As I pondered the fact that I wasn’t writing much, I started to think about the fact that I’m maintaining this blog. One of the obvious ways in which blogs are different is that they aren’t intimate. They are specifically written for others to read.  Blogs are also different from journals in that they are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments. Newer blog applications allow for groups to co-author as well as interact with one another much like a social networking site. Blogs often provide commentary on a particular subject while others can function as a kind of public diary. Much like my blog, a typical blog combines text and images, but can also provide links to other locations on the web.

My blog falls into a category known as a “personal blog,” a kind-of on-going diary about my experience as a missionary in Colombia. Personal blogs can be more than a way to communicate. Some serve as a source of reflection on an experience … in my case, of issues raised from serving the church in Colombia. What’s strikingly different, however, between a personal blog and a journal entry is that your blog is “out there” for everyone and anyone to read. There is a certain kind of intimacy that can form between you and your readers, but it’s not the same as the intimacy enabled when you’re “talking” with yourself. There are subtle differences. You have to be careful about your level of intimacy and what you express about yourself. Most of us would be somewhat guarded about sharing something like an interpersonal conflict, for example, that we might feel comfortable processing in a private journal entry, but not in a public forum (nor, frankly, would that be appropriate). You have to be concerned about what you say, how you say it, and the topics you choose to address. For example, I might be really clear about the roots of poverty or human rights violations in a given country, but that doesn’t mean I should share my perspective on those topics in a blog. You have no idea who is reading it, or how your comments will be perceived.

In my mind, ultimately, the preceding points suggest that since blogs are public and less intimate, they lose something of depth and remain a bit more superficial … and, again, I’m talking about “personal blogs” here and NOT all blogs, in general. There is a balance that develops regarding how much the author … me … feels comfortable sharing about his inner emotions while still enabling a point to be made and/or a little bit of himself be revealed to his readers.

In our technological age, people want us to use the technology to share information about our experiences. Some sending organizations have requirements and expectations that their missionaries maintain some form of blog. But what few, if any, of us consider is what’s different … what are the pros and cons. We lose a certain amount of intimacy, the opportunity for self-reflection, and as I’ve indicated, a future resource. At the same time we gain opportunities to share certain kinds of reflection that provide a window into our experience through which our readers can share in our experience.

Of course, we could maintain a journal along with a blog. But as I wrap my head around what’s appropriate to share in my blog, I find my thinking shifting in subtle ways. Not only do I find I’m getting out of the habit and mode of maintaining a written journal, but I believe my thinking process (about what and how I write) is changing. We don’t often think about the fact that our use of certain technologies might change the way we think, but I suspect my transformation from thinking “journal,” to thinking “blog,” is one such subtle change. And while my experience is not on par with the likes of John Cabot searching for the Northwest Passage across the Atlantic, maybe someday researchers will look back at blogs like mine and wonder what happened. Was it good that we spent our time communicating online? Or did we sacrifice something important, by shifting our thinking away from personal reflection and toward public consumption? Hmmm …

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