A Therapy Alternative: Keep a Commonplace Book

An 1800s invention—a common place for capturing your reflections on reality.

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Income, status, meaning – for most people they're merged. You need status for income and you try to gain both through work that means something to you. 

Aging often affords more time for meaning wherever we find it. If you’re lucky and frugal, you no longer need status to keep food on your table. The pursuit of status and income can be hard habits to break but many do, freeing up time for meaning. It doesn’t have to be profound meaning, just whatever makes your time well spent by your standards. Meaning doesn’t have to elevate you but it does have to keep you from sinking. Knitting, watching TV, scrapbooking, hanging out with the grandkids. Happy people find at least enough meaning to keep their heads above depression

Still, some of us take a while to find something meaningful enough after status and income matter less. 

For that, there’s a different kind of scrapbooking worth considering: Maintaining a commonplace book – someplace where you collect your musings about life, reality, everything, found quotes but also quotes of your own, made as clear, precise and catchy as you can make them. Commonplace books were trendy back in the early 1800’s.  Gentleman scholars kept them. 

I’ve kept a commonplace book for decades, these days on my Facebook wall. It’s part of my system for keeping the notions coming. When I get a notion, I put it into words, usually within minutes or it disappears. I work to nail the notion succinctly and in a catchy way, like a quote or bumper sticker. I get a little feedback on it from FB friends. Eventually, I turn most of those brief notions into articles that yield further response. The response motivates me to keep capturing ideas. 

It’s nice to get a little attention for my notions, but it’s not essential anymore. I don’t expect to gain status or income from it. It’s just me taking notes on things as I see them. 

A commonplace book is a journal of ideas, but in a way, it’s the opposite of a journal. Journals are for taking notes on our personal experiences, our longings, and frustrations. With a commonplace book, you detach to the extent possible from your longings and frustrations, writing more like a philosopher or scientist. You’re not venting; you’re capturing observations about the human condition – who we are with all that is.

Before 40, I had lots of psychotherapy. My commonplace book replaced it. Therapy can be like journaling with an audience. Around 40, I shifted my attention from my personal condition to the human condition. That shift was my key takeaway from decades of therapy – transitioning from what’s up with me to what’s up with us. 

My notions are often prompted by things I see other people do but as often by things I see myself do. I’ve gotten so much meaning out of probing my own inconsistencies that, by now, I’m conditioned to pay attention to them rather than gloss over them, pretending that I’m consistent. Another commonplace bookkeeper, Piet Hein put it this way.

Philosophers find their true perfection
knowing the follies of humankind 
by introspection.

My system for keeping the wondering/writing pump flowing includes keeping a lot of quote books around, in my bathroom, by my bedside. I love pouring over the mind-snacks both for well-turned phrases and other people’s notions. I no longer get drunk on a well-turned phrase though. I kick the tires on the most illustrious of them. If I can find an inconsistency or just a valid counter-argument to some quote that too will prompt new notions that I’ll capture in my commonplace book.

I don't just defer to what the notable quotable wise folk said. I note exceptions to their generalizations. I notice the conflicts between quotations. I notice the ones I don't buy, ask myself why, and answer myself in ways that generate new notions. 

I’m sure some people find my FB wall postings pretentious. “Who does he think he is, writing as though he’s one of the quotable greats?” 

I don’t mind. I would never keep my commonplace book on my Facebook wall if friends couldn’t unfriend or click “show less” of me.  My notions are for me, not for posterity, status or income. If you free yourself from those youthful requirements you can afford to be as bold and honest as you like. 

We humans have a unique opportunity. Given the power of language, we can reference and represent in words absolutely anything. We are the first known creatures to be able to assess the whole ball of wax, waxing eloquent about it as we try to represent it ever more accurately. 

Want meaning? You could do worse than using your discretionary time capturing lots of notes on what it’s all about. And the good thing about taking lots of notes is that you don’t get stuck thinking you can sum up the whole ball of wax with some simple notion like so many do. You visit your reality from many different angles. Your notions crossbreed, spawning more notions.

Here are some examples from my commonplace Facebook postings in the past two weeks. Feel free to friend me there. You can always unfriend me if I get to be too much.

Causality is a big oversimplification. Causes fan back through history. Spilled milk? The big bang was a necessary condition.

Won’t power: The willpower to resist a temptation.

Fight with all your might for what you believe with absolute faith no matter the cost. Sounds heroic. Is evil.

Seeing a bigger picture does not mean prioritizing the biggest scale analysis. Forests all the way up: A forest is tree in larger forest. Triage your way to the scale where you can make the most important difference.

Moralizing is way more prevalent than morality. Rationalizing is way more prevalent than rationality.

Nihilist-narcissists: "People are stupid & doomed. There's no virtue so I'll grab all by pretending I'm the authority on virtue."

We're more likely to stir discomfort by claiming to seek wisdom than money, status, love or sex.

Those who learn the lessons of history but co-inhabit with the education-deprived are forced to repeat it.

Everything I know about writing for clarity, brevity & startle came from decades trying to squeeze a different word in edgewise.