Institutions and Thinking

This morning, there was an article in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden´s largest national newspaper, about how institutions push social evolution. It was written by Lena Andersson, one of the more original and sharp thinkers of the Swedish cultural and political arena. She took newsreporting and newspapers as an example of how we create an institution to serve a certain need (to dispute, to inform, to communicate), but when the institution is there, it also constitutes a challenge every day to do just that, even if the need is less pressing, thereby pushing us further into a constantly changing, developing society. She also compared the western culture, which can be said to have been a forerunner in this, to cultures that have stayed almost the same for thousands of years, and argues that this permanence is due to a lack of written language and the tools that develop from there, tools that promotes new thinking. It amused me when she wrote that as a little girl, it fascinated her that everyday, just enough things would happen in the world that it would fill the half-hour that the television newscast lasted, no more, no less.

Of course, this is a thesis that can be disputed, and with any hope it will be, but it made me think of a private institution of mine, that takes up quite a bit of shelf space (so much that I have had to assign a special cabinet for it, and it´s growing out of that, as well). I´m talking about my diary.

I have diaries from when I was very young, but I didn´t really get into the habit until 1992, when I spent a few days at a retreat in connection with a course in "project and leadership" at the university. Some of the things we did there I still refer to, the lessons on group dynamics was really profound. We had a very good, very insightful teacher, who encouraged us to keep a diary for the days of the retreat. It was such a powerful experience for me that the habit stuck, beginning with a kind of memoir that lasted the entire first volume.

The diary has been invaluable to me, as a way of distancing myself from my own thoughts and feelings, and it has, I think, promoted my growth as a human being, on every level. I even typed out the first eight years of diaries, really going through every aspect of the way I was living and thinking, as a way of working myself through a tendency to become depressed and anxious. Events, thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, challenges, insights, twists and turns - it´s all there. At times, I have wanted to free myself from it, associating it too much with problems having to be solved, thinking that the day I had arrived (whatever that is) I wouldn´t need it anymore. But lately, I have come to realize that I will never arrive, and that the diary is my friend, a wonderful tool to structure my thoughts and get things into perspective. It can be anything I want it to be, do anything I want it to do (almost).

There are lots of famous diaries in literature. When I was in my 20´s, I loved Anaïs Nin and her literary and erotic adventures in 30´s Paris. I lapped up all of it and was quite shocked when I read her biographers. Her diary was, to put it mildly, a glorification of herself and her life. It was a powerful piece of self-promotion and it got her famous alright. Now I think of her diary as everything I don´t want my diary to be. It´s not for others to read, it´s there to encourage honesty, which is not entirely straight-forward even when you talk to yourself, as any self-reflecting person would agree.

Actually, I think that a diary´s usefulness to it´s author is in inverse proportion to its publishability. Writing for yourself is a world apart from writing for others. It´s not meant for anyone to ever read, even you yourself might not. The value of the diary is in the writing, readability is of no importance at all. Which is why I stick to my pen.

Perhaps we were the last generation to be taught some level of penmanship. I have noticed that some of the young ones I introduce at work, can´t even read cursive handwriting, which can be a serious handicap. Even more oddly, the computer-savvy generation doesn´t seem to have been taught typing either. But I imagine voice-manipulated wordprocessors für alle are not far away.

I wonder if that will change the way we think in any way? Tools, like institutions, created by us, also creates us. I suppose that is the point.

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