For many years I kept personal journals to record thoughts, reflections, experiences, and document dreams. I filled notebooks with the churning chaos of my interior life. Merely recording it all seemed to be enough to achieve some measure of increased self-awareness. There were times when journal entries seemed significant; especially certain dreams. But my interests and perhaps, my need for documenting my experience in a journal has evolved. More recently, my enthusiasm for journal work has waned, while translating the experiences of my interior life into external narratives has grown. I became increasingly aware that my journaling practices were erratic, driven by the ebb and flow of moods. Most of my journal entries revolved around personal lows and endlessly dissecting them. I’ve come to believe my approach was misguided, focused little on resolving various ‘valley’ experiences and the mistakes I made to create them, and more on simply describing, recording, and ruminating over them. My journaling practices were akin to a kind of ‘lay on the couch’, psychoanalytic experience. That is, I embraced one of the key pillars of psychoanalysis; that insight alone was the key to resolving whatever troubled me. If I understood, for example, the roots of some dysfunctional behavior, I could change it. If only…Having said this, I won’t deny the value of self-reflection and do believe psychoanalysis and/or journaling can offer helpful insights that facilitate greater self-awareness. But its impact on resolving whatever brought us to the doctor’s couch, or our journals is not be especially effective as an agent for change.

So, now my personal journals sit on a shelf right behind my desk chair. I’ve thought about throwing them out, since, after I’m dead and gone, they would only raise complaints from those I left behind of (TMI) too much information. My wife too has suggested I throw them out, emphatically stating she did NOT want to read them. The truth is, I too have had little interest in reading them. However, from time to time, like Sirens, my journals sing of greater insights, luring me to simply review what I have written over the years. Review them, if, for no other reason, than to see how I have evolved (or devolved). Sure, that might be a useful exercise, but reviewing the ups and downs of my life, frankly, has little appeal. So, there they sit, my journals; a collection of small blue notebooks on the shelf within arm’s reach where they have remained untouched for years.

Untouched until a couple of days ago when I relented on the heels of an especially harrowing several weeks. I randomly retrieved two of them from the shelf.  Thumbing through them, I was amused by the chaotic collection of paper scraps on which I scribbled notes; yellow stickies with one or two words hastily scrawled to capture some fleeting thought; barely discernable hen scratches made in the middle of the night about a dream I feared forgetting before I awoke. Then, between all the interspersed notes, the journal itself with more contrived entries associated with specific dates. It was a confusing mix that no doubt, reflected the interior chaos below my exterior confidence- it was rich but confused.

So, let me pause here to offer some explanation as to why I believe, I re-visited these old journals. Two weeks ago, we had to put down one of our dogs- a smallish whippet with a big personality. Dog lovers will understand how anguishing this experience can be. Then, last week I flew to San Diego, California to attend a dear friend’s funeral and to spend some time in my old home town with my kids and grandchildren. The funeral was for a close friend and former Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral there, Jim Carroll. Jim lived a long, rich and wonderfully full life, positively impacting countless people. He was in his nineties when he died, so, while sad, there was also a genuine sense of gratitude for a life well-lived. The service was predictably grand with a Cathedral full of people. Quite unexpectedly, I discovered the most powerful moment for me in the funeral was the organ voluntary played at the conclusion of the service. The Voluntary is typically treated like music to leave by when congregants are heading for the exits. I know this frustrates many excellent organists who have rehearsed and rehearsed a piece that is regrettably, often ignored. In this particular instance, the congregation was requested to remain seated during the voluntary, an unusual request that, of course, was honored. I was unfamiliar with the music but immediately loved it (a rarity). In fact, later the same day, I downloaded it and listened to it multiple times. I shared it with others hoping they too would feel as I did. (They never do.)

Each of the five days in San Diego, I took an early morning walk to soak up some sun, get some exercise, and re-visit familiar places. One particular morning, I listened to the piece of music played at the conclusion of the funeral on my walk. The piece, ‘Outer Hebrides’, was composed by Paul Haley. As I set out, ear buds fixed in place, the music began and, for some unknown and unexpected reason, I found tears welling up and running down my cheeks. Honestly, I was puzzled by this and wondered why. Was I mourning the death of my friend…our dog, Winnie? No doubt. But that alone seemed to miss the mark. Again, Jim lived a long and, by any measure, a full life. Winnie lived a relatively long life and predeceased her owners as most dogs do. Was it the beauty of music itself? I have felt moved to tears by music before, but this too seemed to fall short.

Aptly named, “Outer Hebrides”, after a chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland, the composition captures their isolation and the melancholy gray skies and seas surrounding them. The music is melodic with a distinctly Celtic feel. Curiously, the traditional instruments of Celtic music are absent since the composition was written for pipe organ. There was, what I experienced as a woeful and wistful melody, a refrain, of sorts that the composition returns to again and again. Lilting, and haunting, lonely and melancholic, the organ mimics the soulful sound of a bagpiper. As the piece, progresses from lonely laments to, pulling out all the stops, magnificent crescendos, it returns again and again to the wistful and woeful refrain woven into the composition throughout. The tears continued which I made no effort to stop. I did lower my gaze to conceal my state from passersby, fearing their stares might distract me from this intensely private reverie.

I opted not to research the piece or the composer before pondering it all and why I found it so compelling. Having attended the funeral only the day before, it was predictable (at least for me) that I gave considerable thought to the notion of one’s life work as a whole; as if we might look back on our lives as a body of work. Indeed, it occurred to me that we might conceptualize our life work is a composition of sorts; one that comes into focus especially as life ends. Of all that we have may have created, of all the things we have done, of all the places we have visited, those we’ve helped, those we’ve hurt or betrayed, our greatest work… our magnum opus, is the life we live taken as a whole. I wondered too about the refrains we return to over and over as life progresses- the thread that runs through- plays out across- the constant flow of time and change that permeates all life. There are refrains- Every life has one. I am convinced of this even as we may never come to appreciate what they are.

I had finally retrieved my journals with an eye toward discovering, or, more accurately, reaffirming the refrain that my own life’s composition returns to again and again. I became conscious of it in a rather round about manner. One of the entries in my journal I found striking expressed the feeling that my life seemed to consist of a progression of distinct and discreet events, disconnected from one another except insofar as it was me who experienced them. I was the thread connecting them only because I experienced them. The march of events sometimes felt random and at other times planned. But still, I experienced them as disconnected; work, people, events, work events, kids’ events, wife events, close confidant events, and so on. It was a little like each possessing a time slot on my calendar but their connection was only that they all existed in my calendar. As I reviewed the entries during this period, I was unable to discern any sort of refrain I returned to just the ongoing flow of events. I believed there had to be something that might allow me to discover a kind of integrating experience that rendered these disparate events into a harmonious whole; to collect and organize these seemingly disconnected events into an integrated composition. Instead, my life felt more as if I were listening to a symphony orchestra tuning up rather than offering even a simple melody.

Listen, I do appreciate that not everyone thinks this way or would be especially concerned with a matter such as this. In fact, I’m sure to some the whole notion is little more than an exercise in navel gazing that fly in the face of my remarks on the limited value of insight alone. But for me, this was not about some external problem to be resolved but discerning from the arc of my life’s path something integrating, a kind of psychic hoe to which I constantly returned. I wasn’t looking for a solution to some life problem, but seeking to discover, or better, recognize a thread that runs through and harmonizes the discreet events in my life; my life’s refrain.

I listened to ‘Outer Hebrides’ over and over possessing only a vague appreciation for why it resonated so powerfully. Like many, I have always loved Celtic music; most especially the pieces infused with emotion. So, it is not surprising that ‘Outer Hebrides’ appealed to me. More important to me is what the music conjures- a kind of sadness, melancholy, loneliness, wistfulness, and a generalized feeling of grief. I want to clarify that while the above list may sound depressing and represent experiences most people try to avoid, they are pervasive, indeed universal. You cannot outrun the experience of any of them. Edith Eger, who believed that all therapy is griefwork, helps to define the paradox that the acceptance of sadness, melancholy, and grief can drive creativity and compassion. She further notes that the opposite of depression is expression. “What comes out of you doesn’t make you sick; what stays in there does.” Consider, for example, how many beautiful pieces of music are born in the experience of what we seek to avoid. After Gustav Mahler learned of his wife’s infidelity, his heart broken, he composed his 8th and 10th Symphonies considered by many to be his greatest. One need only gaze upon the paintings of Picasso’s blue period to find the experience of melancholy transformed to beauty. Some of the world’s greatest poets suffered from episodes of melancholy and mania that they claim empowered their work.

What I would describe as undifferentiated grief is the refrain to which my life returns. By undifferentiated grief I mean grief, not associated with the sharp pain of specific grief like the death of a loved one. Undifferentiated grief is the dull ache that everyone knows from the multitude of losses we experience over a lifetime; the inevitable disappointments one encounters almost daily; the broken heart suffered in a failed relationship. Our appreciation for this grows as we age and learn its lessons over and over. It is wise to remember the experience of joy is not universal. Many have never known joy, but everyone knows grief. Heartbreaking as it might be, the world understands the experience of grief much better than it does joy. In countless conversations about faith struggles, many Christians have expressed to me how they understand the crucifixion- it’s the resurrection they don’t get.

No one pursues grief, and I want to be clear I am not romanticizing it. Only the fool pursues grief as some sort of idealized virtue to be embraced. Grief doesn’t need to be pursued; it always finds you. Joy, on the other hand doesn’t seek us out, but does invite us to pursue it. It regrettably remains elusive for many.

I do believe that my life’s refrain is captured in the undifferentiated grief that ‘Outer Hebrides’ seemed to invite me to visit. I understand this is what the tears meant. I’ve rubbed up against this experience from time to time and it always takes my breath away. But I have also learned to expect it, to feel its dull ache, but to believe from it can emerge something beautiful, something to be treasured. For me this refrain I return to over and over is about living life as it is, rather than as I might wish it to be.  

I have placed the two journals back on the shelf and determined it best to keep them for now. It wasn’t the material in the journal that brought me to a greater appreciation of life themes but the confluence of events including the experience of a piece of music that rendered visible the golden thread that ties it all together.


  1. Very thought-provoking. My hope is that in your pursuit of understanding life’s journey, you remain hopeful and pursue joy.


    1. I do pursue joy. You know, I can’t help myself!


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