Last weekend I set up an at-home retreat. I set the intention of perspective, clarity, and reflection on the past few months. The idea was to journal and meditate, but first I was overcome by a spontaneous and suddenly very important need to tidy my apartment.
At first I resisted. This wasn’t the work! In the end I gave in, which was for the best. I didn’t know tidying would present me with exactly what I was looking for, finding meaning in a box of old journals, gathering dust. As I scanned the pages nostalgia filled the room and my body fell still, as if stepping off a treadmill I didn’t realise I was running on.
The Journal of Life
That weekend I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. This article is largely inspired by his ideas and profound outlook on life, love, and suffering. This passage was fresh in my mind as I looked at my old journal:
“As soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualised a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have reserved it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past in which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.”
The treadmill is my metaphor for the stubble field of transitoriness. It’s so easy to get caught in the day-to-day trance, moving quickly from one thing to the next. But what happens when we step off? And set aside sacred time to explore the full granaries of the past?
As I read old diary entries I felt the richness of Frankl’s words, the seeds planted on the page. The sweetness of sentiment was inspiring. My imagination came alive. I flash forward to the point immediately after my death. I’m in a small room with no recollection of how I got there, like a dream that starts with no beginning.
There’s a table, a chair, a notebook labelled The Journal of Life, and a box inscribed with Your Heart’s Treasure Chest. Everything is gold and glistening. My entire life is documented in the notebook, in my handwriting, though I’m sure I didn’t write it all. The box is full of items, each linked to a memory, an era, a treasure.
I’m given all the time I need to examine the journal pages and treasures, as nostalgia fills the room again.
Finding Meaning In The Treasure Hunt
As my mind’s eye sculpts this story, there’s something familiar about it. Isn’t there something in Christianity, about your entire life being shown to you upon death? I Google a few terms and eventually find it: particular judgment, the concept in Christianity whereby a soul is divinely judged after death.
It’s a powerful, archetypal symbol — I picture the pearly gates, the narrow gate of salvation to one side, the wide gate of damnation the opposite. I dig some more. An article mentions the Sistine Chapel, a recurring synchronicity since my podcast discussion with Bethany Butzer.
Bethany shared a chain of coincidences with Michelangelo’s painting, Adam and God. Knowing this is another breadcrumb to follow, my attention peaks. Low and behold, the Last Judgement was also painted by Michelangelo. It’s a breathtaking masterpiece depicting the Second Coming of Christ.
It’s hardly discreet or unheard of, yet my conscious mind had no recollection of this painting. Now I find another meaning-full coincidence, a link between my mind’s eye and Michelangelo’s work: the artist depicts an angel with the Book of Life. In Christianity and Judaism, this is God’s record of all of the souls destined for Heaven.
The Heart’s Treasure Chest
When it was clear this would be the first Christmas away from my family, I was sent a festive package to bring some of home to me. The box was full of thoughtful gifts, such as favourite foods from the UK. But what moved me the most were the trinkets. There were two candles, one in the shape of Father Christmas, one of a snowman. They’ve been displayed every Christmas I’ve had. With them, a note:
Two candles (not for burning — display only LOL) to remind you of old Xmas’ gone by. The snowman is very special as you bit the chunk out of his hat when you were small, thinking it was edible! Can you bring him home with you xxx.
I wept. It wasn’t sadness. It’s hard to define. It was a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia, of gratitude that this candle, on the surface just a candle, was filled with meaning, a chunk irrevocably missing thanks to my younger self. The candle was a trinket of the heart’s treasure chest in physical form.
But many trinkets reside in imagination. These treasures are psychic symbols that contain meaning, of deeds done, love loved, suffering conquered. Trinkets, by definition, are things of little value. But I use this word consciously. Because their value is defined by the heart and the memories attached to them.
A Chance To Choose Again
The heart’s treasure chest shows us not only that we are lucky to love, but moments of love and meaning are everywhere; in a snowman candle, mince pies, a song a friend recommended with subtle tears in their eyes, off the cuff jokes that made your ribs hurt, ambitious scribbles from a creative brainstorm with a soon-to-be lover, a photo hidden in the shared media of a WhatsApp conversation, a gentle and fleeting touch when you felt afraid and didn’t think you showed it.
This image might not be as elaborate and majestic as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, but that’s what makes it somehow human, somehow heartfelt, somehow humble. Just simple trinkets, stored in the heart’s treasure chest. And the beauty of them? In addition to the Journal of Life, we have the opportunity to reflect on these treasures before death. Frankl’s imperative is to:
“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrong the first time as you are about to act now.”
This could be interpreted in a number of ways. But following the above experiences, I see this as a prompt to use the past and the transitory nature of the present to add meaning to all moments to come, however many we are gifted. Setting this intention is choosing again; choosing meaning, love, choosing to create more treasure. One definition of religion is from the Latin re-eligere, which literally means to choose again.
Choosing the sacred is an act of divinity. We have the chance to right wrongs by choosing differently next time. The opportunity to choose, right now, is an act of grace. Choosing again might be telling a loved one how much they mean to you, taking a risk, having the courage to follow a dream, going on an adventure, facing what needs to be faced to heal, all safe in the knowledge that no matter the outcome, the treasure is irrevocably deposited into the past.
Reflection And Frankl’s Super-Meaning
The ethos of reflection on the past isn’t particular judgment, but a particular perspective on deeds done. There is no right or wrong, no yearning, no pearly gates. Just this small room, the table, the chair, the journal, and the treasure chest. By slowing down and stepping off the treadmill, an enchanted quality is revealed: each treasure is seen through the lens of Frankl’s super-meaning:
“This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.”
Logos is a Greek word for meaning. Frankl named his approach logotherapy because the “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” Logos is deeper than logic, but in deep reflection, we taste the meaning behind intellectual understanding of the past, then the heart speaks its language, a language that comprehends the incomprehensible.
True, some memories are challenging, painful, or regretful. But this is only because their meaning hasn’t yet been revealed. Reflect deep enough, and the radiance of meaning shimmers, even if not fully grasped.
At the risk of disappearing into a philosophical black hole, these experiences had me reflect on reflection. Why is looking into the past reflection? When you look into a mirror, you see who you are. Is mental reflection the same? Does reflection show you who you are? Is it a reminder of the deeds done, the love loved, the suffering faced with courage showing you who you really are?
Is the Journal of Life and the heart’s treasure chest a reminder that, when all is said and done, love is the most important thing, and that throughout your life, as Frankl says, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured? That the truest part of you, much vaster than logic, comprehends the meaning in all moments?
How easy is it to feel some moments are “lost”? You can’t change the past or return to it. But you can change your perspective. Upon reflection, a jewel of meaning resides in the core of every memory, each moment. By finding the jewel of meaning, nothing is lost, but irrevocably gained, because it was lived. Even if covered in the dust of heartache or the soil of regret, trust this jewel can be restored.
That evening, moved by this reflection, I meditated and was presented with so many memories, one image at a time. The jewels within each, shining bright. My heart was full. It was a good idea to tidy.