In this Lenten season of repentance, I owe the late French writer Albert Camus an apology.
In The Messy Quest for Meaning, I write about falling under the spell of Camus’ novels about a meaningless, Godless, gloomy world during my senior year of high school. I worshiped the guy back then, owned every one of his books. One of my favorite bands, The Cure, had even written a song about his most famous book The Stranger!
Eventually, though, Camus’ unrelentingly bleak vision of life got a little old, even for a jaded literature major. So I moved on to more promising possibilities. In writing my book at age 38, I gently mocked Camus for stoking my stereotypical teen rebellion. These days, I tend to think, “That wasn’t the most mature phase of my life.”
Just yesterday, however, I was leafing through some journals I kept during my freshman year of college. It was a tough time in which a failed romance, an underlying, ignored anxiety disorder and a total lack of religious faith combined to wallop me.
For many years now, I’ve pinned some of the blame on Camus. He was the one, after all, who led me down into that dark, French, existentialist hole. What I’d forgotten until I re-opened those journals for the first time in probably 20 years is that he also helped lead me out of it.
As that freshman year stretched on, I started reading Camus’ own journals, which were more hopeful than his fiction, and writing down his inspiring quotes about living authentically. “Abolish audiences and learn to be your own judge,” he urged and seek “freedom from your own vanity and cowardice.” For a teen-ager who wanted to be his own person but sometimes felt inclined to strike a pose or got too self-consumed, this was great advice. I reflected on it constantly back then. It helped change my worldview for the better and, somewhere deep down, it’s stayed with me. I just didn’t recall that Camus was the source.
The lesson here: even if you don’t fancy yourself a writer, you really need to write things down about your daily life because:
1) It helps you work through challenges in real time: For much of my freshman year, I poured out my troubles every day in long journal entries that nobody but me has ever seen. Back then, I didn’t know it would be therapeutic. It was actually the only thing I knew to do. Looking over these journal entries 20 years later, it’s obvious that the very process of writing them had a powerful healing effect. Getting a storm of thoughts and emotions down on paper helped greatly in making sense of them. Gratitude journals or rambling ones like mine can positively alter the way you see yourself and the world.
2) We forget a lot of things: I have a really good memory. But re-reading these journal entries was humbling because it showed how much I’ve forgotten, not just about average days but about a crucial time in my life. I still recall the highlights well from freshman year, but there are many important details I’d forgotten. And it’s the daily details, decisions and habits, not the big dramatic happenings, that gradually determine how our lives unfold. Having it all written down means I know what really happened instead of what I tell myself happened.
3) Somebody else might benefit later: My kids aren’t even 10 years old yet, but they’re a lot closer to 19 than I am. When they get there, I’m sure there’s a lot I won’t understand about their experiences. But I will have my own journals from when I was their age, and that will be a lot more helpful for relating to them than a bunch of fuzzy, inaccurate memories.
And before the entire purpose of this post also slips my mind — sorry, Albert.