‘St. Michael Vanquishing Satan’ (1518) by Raphael

I read somewhere — and it may well be apocryphal or a case of misattribution — that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel laureate and author of The Gulag Archipelago, once wrote down every immoral thing that he’d ever done (or at least, that he could remember doing).

Whether he did or didn’t do this is irrelevant, at least for the purposes of this post. We know that writing is effective therapy, and by its nature within the grasp of any literate person. By committing words to the page we can, alone and in our own time, help ourselves to deal with emotional trauma and establish at least the feeling of self-control. I’m put in mind of Lord Byron, who said that, ‘If I didn’t write to empty my brain, I would go mad’ — here referring not to what we now believe to have been bipolar disorder, but to the oppressive thoughts we all have, and which weigh us down. (Here was a man who racked up lovers and debts with breathtaking enthusiasm, which was likely symptomatic of his mania. Lady Caroline Lamb called him, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’)

By writing down our sins (or, crucially, our imagined sins), we untangle them from our emotions. We see them for what they are: mere thoughts or actions with no inherent emotional weight. This is not to say that our actions don’t carry moral weight, but — as Buddhism teaches us — our emotions are not precise reflections of reality. What unsettles us may not have any reason to unsettle us, and if it does, we can at least look at it on the page in a way that is dispassionate, and so both confront it and decide on a way forward.

We see this in Park Chan-wook’s cult neo-noir Old Boy, in which the imprisoned Oh Dae-su writes down the name of everyone he’s ever wronged. Of course, Oh Dae-su is merely trying to figure out who it is that has locked him up in the makeshift prison in which he finds himself, but it is nevertheless an important part of his development from a drunk who misses his daughter’s birthday to someone who oozes single-minded determination and strength of will.

The Stoics of the Ancient world (and of Ancient Rome in particular) praised the virtues of keeping a diary, the most famous example of which is the Meditations. It belonged to Marcus Aurelius, a man still held in high esteem and often thought to embody the idea of the philosopher-king. To Marcus Aurelius, as well as Seneca and Epictetus, the diary was a means to improve your self-awareness. It would function as a kind of feedback mechanism, by which the diarist could ask herself or himself what she or he had done well or badly or not at all. In his Discourses, Epictetus writes:

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes Before each daily action thou hast scann’d; What’s done amiss, what done, what left undone; From first to last examine all, and then Blame what is wrong, in what is right rejoice.

In Happiness, the molecular geneticist-turned-Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes very beautifully how by looking directly at an unpleasant emotion we cause that emotion to disintegrate ‘like snow in the glare of the sun’. This is an internal exercise in the Buddhist tradition, but it surely has some relationship to this idea of doing what may feel counter-intuitive and, if the thought or emotion is particularly painful — there is no Pāli or Sanskrit word for ‘emotion’, which points to how tangled our thoughts and emotions are — intimidating. In Christianity there is of course confession, but there is also the Islamic Istighfar and the communal confession of the Jewish Yom Kippur. These rituals and exercises differ markedly, and I won’t claim to know every way in which they do, but they all imply a shared belief that you must acknowledge your wrongdoing if you are to achieve any kind of catharsis.

I think it was Carl Jung who said that a single, honest conversation can be ‘redemptive’, and central to Rogerian therapy is the concept of ‘unconditional positive regard’, which entails the therapist’s complete acceptance and support for the patient regardless of what they say or do. But the simple point I’m trying to make is that in order to deal with our demons, we need to — so to speak — let them out of their cage and look them in the eye. We strip them of much of their power when we do, and moreover we frame what they represent in terms that allow us to gain clarity and insight and thus move forward. The beauty of doing this with writing in particular, the beauty of what Solzhenitsyn did (if indeed he did it) is that it needs no other party, no special circumstances, no money and, indeed, no religious faith. All we need is courage and sincerity.

Essayist and book critic. Writer of ‘Without Wax’, to be published in 2020. ‘Sit in your cell and the cell will teach you all.’

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