The surprising benefits of keeping a diary, and the Stoic mindfulness “Last Time” meditation.
Every day for the past 13 years I’ve kept a digital diary of what I did that day. It’s part daily review, part ‘separating the days for each other’, part written memory to aid my faulty in-built one. It sends me an email asking, “What did you do today?” I reply. It goes into a secure cloud-based platform and gets stored. (I used to use OhLife.com, but now I use Maildiary.net)
It’s nothing fancy — I don’t go into detail about my feelings unless someone died, or I got a cartoon published in the New Yorker, or I get the Coronavirus — I just write what I did that day, and hit ‘send’.
The most valuable feature of the diary is after a week, it tells you what you were doing that same day last week. Then after a month, it tells you what you were doing that same day last month. Then after a year, it does the same.
Ten years on, I get a “this is what you were doing on this day 10 years ago” each morning, and it never fails to knock me on my ass. Every vexation, grudge, life-ending catastrophe turned out to be nothing. Everything I was stressed and worried about never came to pass. There were also things I could do then that I took for granted. People I could see who are now dead, friends who live in different countries. I had no idea that day ten years ago would be the last time I saw them.
There is an ancient Stoic gratitude tradition called the “Last Time” meditation.
The crux of the practice is that you mindfully do things with the consideration that you rarely get to know when the last time you do something will be. Terminal patients talk and write about it, and it brings forth the stark realization that every moment is fleeting, and we may not get another.
The old saying ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ isn’t just a lyric from a Joni Mitchell song; it’s a reminder with its roots in ancient Stoic philosophy that you can carry with you anywhere, any time.
Washing a dish thinking “This could be the last time I ever wash a dish” isn’t really the way to do it well. It’s better to do the exercise with the things you might take for granted in your life. It’s better to do it when hugging a loved one you see every day, or going for a walk in the pillowy fresh snow, drinking a good cup of coffee (okay, wine) or having dinner with close friends. You rarely get to know when the last time you’ll get to do those things will be. So, try to remain mindful of them. Appreciate them while they’re here.
For example: On this day, March 3rd last year:
I woke early, walked the dog, went to the gym, had breakfast at my favourite diner, rode a bike to the World Trade Center to pitch some cartoons to the New Yorker Cartoon Editor who was about to leave for SXSW, bumped into Mort Gerberg on the journey, picked up a copy of the magazine because one of my cartoons was in that week’s issue (woohoo!) then on my way home got sideswiped by a cab on my bike. (I have a bad history with cabs.) I remember thinking, “Boy, that cab really ruined my day…”
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last day I’d ever go to the gym I went to every morning (it’s now closed and has filed for bankruptcy), The diner is only allowed to open at 25% capacity with masks, the New Yorker staff have been working remotely for nearly a year and SXSW was cancelled that following day (Actual thanks, Tim Ferriss), Mort Gerberg and his wife left New York to live in the country with family, (that was the last time I saw him), but just yesterday a cab skidded and nearly ran a red light as I was crossing the street with the dog.
It’s the little things you miss.