Journaling in Isolation: Therapy for the Soul
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Today many of us find ourselves isolated from society, sitting at home and waiting for the pandemic to pass. We have food to eat, we have time for rest, we communicate via text, phone, or video with our friends and loved ones. And yet, the isolation can become weary, especially as it marches on for days and weeks. Have you ever considered journaling your thoughts during your isolation? It is therapy for your soul.
When we look back at history, some of the greatest contributors to the human story were people who regularly wrote down their thoughts. By examining several historical figures, we learn five ways in which keeping a journal helps us.
1. Developing our Ideas - Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci - the epitome of the Renaissance man - is known for having studied across the disciplines of art and science. He kept a notebook of his thoughts throughout his life, as the British Library describes:
a page from Da Vinci's notebook courtesy of the British Library
"Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), painter, sculptor, architect and engineer, kept notes and drawings of his studies, ideas and inventions. Over 7,000 pages have survived, including this notebook known as Codex Arundel.
"The structure of the notebook shows that it was not originally a bound volume. It was put together after Leonardo's death from loose papers of various types and sizes, some indicating Leonardo's habit of carrying smaller bundles of notes to document observations outdoors. The notebook features many topics, including mechanics, the flow of rivers, astronomy, optics, architecture and the flight of birds, demonstrating Leonardo's intense curiosity."
One day, this curiosity about how things work led da Vinci to examine the mathematical ratios of the human body, and he sketched out his findings with a drawing of a man's body in two positions - one within a circle and one within a square.
a portion of Da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man,' ca. 1490
The result was a simple, beautiful illustration of human anatomy. Over the years it has been adopted into more company logos than perhaps any other work of art. Leonardo never knew how much his thoughts and scribbles would mean to future generations.
Writing down your thoughts is an essential part of journaling. Putting your impressions into words and onto paper produces both clarity and permanence. It allows you to return to your ideas at a later time to explore them further, to discuss them with others, and to polish and perfect them.
2. Finding Meaning in Isolation - Anne Frank
Another person in history who wrote a journal was a Jewish girl from Holland by the name of Anne Frank. During the years 1942 - 1944, she and her family were living in a small, cramped housing annex in Amsterdam to hide from the occupying German soldiers. Remaining in such isolation for two years would demoralize anyone, but through her writing she found the courage to go on. On March 16, 1944, Anne made this entry:
"The finest thing of all is that I can at least write down what I think and feel, otherwise I would suffocate completely."
Being cooped up together in such a tight space, at times the 15-year-old, confident Anne found herself arguing with her 'realist' mother over their divergent views of life. But writing down her thoughts at the end of each day enabled her to process each conflict and renew her inner joy and love for others. One evening she wrote:
a page from Anne Frank's diary
"I don’t think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. This is one of the things that Mummy and I are so entirely different about. Her counsel when one feels melancholy is, 'think of all the misery in the world and be thankful that you are not sharing in it!' My advice is: 'Go outside, in the fields, enjoy nature and the sunshine, go out and try to recapture happiness in yourself and in God. Think of all the beauty that’s still left in and around you and be happy!'
"I don’t see how Mummy’s idea can be right, because then how are you supposed to behave if you go through the misery yourself? Then you are lost. On the contrary, I’ve found that there is always some beauty left – in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you. Look at these things, then you will find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.
"And whoever is happy will make others happy too. He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery!"
Keeping a journal enabled Anne to discover her own opinions and develop a critical mind. This literary ritual brought great meaning to an otherwise dreary life. One night in March 1944, Anne was listening to a radio broadcast by a Dutch political leader in exile, Gerrit Bolkestein. He encouraged his Dutch listeners to preserve their letters and diaries so that one day they could document their sufferings under the Nazi regime. With that, she set about to rewrite her diary for publication. She wanted the world to know what it was like for her and her family. In the same way, your life too can gain meaning by formulating your own thoughts about the people and events taking place. You may find that one day others will profit from your written record.
3. Gaining Perspective - Daniel Defoe
In 1719, Daniel Defoe published his novel, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a book that has been translated into more languages than any other book outside the Bible. The story concerns a young sailor who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck on a deserted island.
Robinson Crusoe as a slave
Defoe's protagonist, Crusoe, finds himself in a miserable condition, having no food, no clothing, no shelter, and no friend. To console himself, Crusoe resorts to an entry in his journal:
"I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered, thus:—
"Let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account."
Just as Daniel Defoe's protagonist was able to gain a more objective perspective on his trials by listing their positives and negatives, so you can utilize your journal to rise above your emotional feelings and evaluate your life challenges from a higher plain.
4. Grieving a Loss - The Prophet Job
As one of the earliest literary works ever written, the Book of Job stands out as a masterpiece of 'theodicy' - an answer to the question of how a good and powerful God can allow evil.
The story begins with a description of Job as the greatest man in the East, who feared God and turned away from evil. When his circumstances suddenly turned sour - losing all his wealth, his ten children, and eventually his own health - he sat down with three of his friends to discuss what it all meant. One by one, his friends began accusing him of having committed some great sin, since God was apparently punishing him for wrongdoing. But Job insisted that he had never wavered in his faith or his obedience to heaven. He longed for a way to publish a record of his struggle, just as Anne Frank did.
“How I wish my words were written down, written on a scroll. I wish they were carved with an iron pen into lead, or carved into stone forever. I know that my Defender lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth. Even after my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I will see God. I will see him myself; I will see him with my very own eyes. How my heart wants that to happen!" (Job 19:23-26, NCV)
Ilya Repin's Job and his Friends, 1869
When Job wistfully reflected upon his past, he expressed his thoughts in beautiful Hebrew poetry using a literary device called synonymous parallelism.
“How I wish for the months that have passed and the days when God watched over me. The Almighty was still with me, and my children were all around me. I would go to the city gate and sit in the public square. When the young men saw me, they would step aside, and the old men would stand up in respect. Anyone who heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me praised me, because I saved the poor who called out and the orphan who had no one to help. The dying person blessed me, and I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on right living as if it were clothing; I wore fairness like a robe and a turban. I was eyes for the blind and feet for the lame. I was like a father to needy people, and I took the side of strangers who were in trouble.
"But now those who are younger than I make fun of me.
Now they make fun of me with songs; my name is a joke among them. They hate me and stay far away from me, but they do not mind spitting in my face.
Now my life is almost over; my days are full of suffering. At night my bones ache; gnawing pains never stop.
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you just look at me.
My skin has become black and peels off, as my body burns with fever. My harp is tuned to sing a sad song, and my flute is tuned to moaning." (excerpts from Job 29-30, NCV)
Allowing time to grieve your losses is critical to your mental health. Without expressing your misery and anguish in writing, it will be difficult for you to regain your emotional equilibrium. Journaling is a powerful way to identify your feelings of sadness and work through them.
Current research confirms this phenomenon. Professor and Social Psychologist, James Pennebaker (University of Texas, Austin), made this conclusion after studying the differences in emotional health between students who verbally expressed a trauma vs. students who wrote out their thoughts.
"When students were randomly assigned to express a traumatic experience, only [those who wrote about their experience] evidenced significant improvements in physical health and grade point average. The mere emotional expression of a trauma is not sufficient. Health gains appear to require translating experiences into language."
5. Instructing our Heart - The Sons of Korah
The sons of Korah were a family of priests from the Jewish tribe of Levi. When one of these sons was being severely mistreated by those around him, he wrote the following prayer:
As a deer thirsts for streams of water, so I thirst for you, God. I thirst for the living God. When can I go to meet with him? Day and night, my tears have been my food. People are always saying, “Where is your God?”
After describing his affliction and his longing for God, he then begins to instruct his own heart as if he was providing soul-therapy:
When I remember these things, I speak with a broken heart. Why am I so sad? Why am I so upset? I should put my hope in God and keep praising him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:1-5, NCV)
You also have this ability to do self-therapy - that is, to instruct your mind with objective truth that transcends your current level of emotional pain. In doing so you protect yourself from the biggest danger of all: letting your feelings alone drive your decisions concerning the future.
To conclude then, maintaining a journal is a way to sharpen your mental acuity and preserve your emotional health. When you encounter difficulties in your life and choose to write about it, you provide your downcast heart with a chance to be restored by gaining perspective on your situation, by processing each loss with dignity, and by remembering who it is that ultimately watches over you and cares for you.
 “Leonardo Da Vinci's Notebook.” The British Library, The British Library, 20 Jan. 2015, www.bl.uk/collection-items/leonardo-da-vinci-notebook
 Pennebaker, James W, and Cindy K Jung. “Expressive Writing, Emotional Upheavals, and Health.” Foundations of Health Psychology, by Howard S. Friedman and Roxane Cohen Silver, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 273.
 Defoe, Daniel. “Chapter IV - First Weeks on the Island.” Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, David Price ed., Seeley, Service & Co., 1919.
The cover photo is courtesy of Abbie Dyer on Unsplash.
The graphic for Robinson Crusoe is courtesy of ClipArt, ETC.