running as fast as I can just to stay where I am: self-improvement and journal-writing

In the famous “Red Queen’s Race” scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, our heroine Alice, running as fast as possible to keep up with the Red Queen, notices that the physics of Wonderland do not track with her eathbound intuitions:

‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

The allegory of the Red Queen’s Race has not only been heavily alluded to in modern literature by authors such as Isaac Asimov, but has also been marshaled by physicists to explain the relativistic effects of light in an expanding universe, and by biologists to explain the observation that species that seem well-adapted to their environments are nevertheless constantly evolving. For me, personally, the Red Queen’s Race brilliantly captures both the futility and the necessity that characterize my pursuit of self-improvement.

As I’ve mentioned previously, writing these blog posts is –at the moment anyway– aversive and time-consuming. I am so accustomed to the scrutiny-free wonderland that is my private journal entries that my public writing needs to be heavily edited for content and style before I consider it publishable. It concerns me to think that “making a blog post publishable” might in practice amount to “sanitizing and obscuring my raw thoughts to the point where they no longer correspond to my actual thoughts”. This general concern has occurred to me before, though it did not trouble me at the time as it does now. As I was writing essays for college, I found it easier to write what sounded sophisticated and persuasive rather than what how I genuinely felt. I got the same grade regardless of how much effort I invested. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that this approach to writing essays retarded my ability to organize my thoughts and express them in a way that accurately reflects my actual point-of-view. My other mode of writing has traditionally been my journal, which has proven no more salutary for effective blogging. This is not to say, however, that my journal-writing is not been a boon to me in other ways…

I consider myself an assiduous diarist. My journaling career began in July 2007, when I developed an intense crush on one of my co-workers that was as obsessive as it was unrequited. Since (shockingly!) no one in my social circle seemed interested in my romantic melodrama, I took up journaling in search of a safe and sympathetic space in which to express myself. So, what began as a mere outlet for my neurotic nonsense, but has since become a useful tool for self-organization and self-improvement. To be sure, the impetus for most of my current journal entries continues to be catharsis, usually in the aftermath of some perceived indignity. But the narrative of the entry generally shifts from reactive to proactive once I talk myself down from my original upset state. I reflect on recent developments in my life, deliberate on upcoming decisions, and, more often than not, chastise myself for not living up to my high expectations. Eventually, I turn from the abstract and theoretical to the concrete and practical, doing things such as compiling all my outstanding tasks, ranking them according to priority, and then generating schedules. This is the primary means by which my journal entries foster self-improvement. Or at least the illusion of self-improvement. (The question of whether or not I am deluded in my pursuit of self-improvement is something I am keenly aware of, and to which I intend to devote a future blog post.)

There are other aspects of keeping a journal entry that appeal to me, not least of which is the aesthetic joy of transducing my messy state of mind into neatly structured paragraphs.

Besides the expected productivity boost that results from any such structured, pragmatic thinking, writing journal entries has another salutary effect: temporary freedom from distracting environmental stimuli and the neutoric monologue of my consciousness. I’m by no means a consistent or capable meditator, but strongly suspect that the wellbeing I experience while journaling is neurologically and phenomenologically similar to that of a meditation practicioner. Or, perhaps it’s more similar to what the positive psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihaly called Flow, “a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems”. In addition to being cathartic, practical, aesthetic, and occasionally numinous, journaling is also intensely comforting activity. Merely imagining the sensation of my fingers alighting upon the keyboard, words spilling onto the page, noticeably lowers my blood pressure and heart rate. There’s something about the sheer familiarity and the underlying sense that I’m doing something constructive that calms me. I am greatly interested in biofeedback and neurofeedback, and would like to empirically verify this someday using actual sensors. The tactile, kinesthetic delight I get from writing these entries is probably similar to the comfort smokers derive from the ritualized hand motions involved handling a cigarette.

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