Can writing a list change your life?

How the simple act of writing a list can open doors to personal discovery and spiritual growth

When you make a list, you open a space in which things can bubble up from where they’ve lain trapped in pockets under the surface of consciousness. Fears, especially, often go unnamed because they’re hard to face and easy to hide behind the false comfort of denial. Guilt and regret also get pushed underground, and anxieties about others’ lives that we can’t do much about, and discontents that seem a little dangerous to explore. So, for example, my current list of concerns might look something like this:

The dying of a dear one

Information overload

Climate change and carbon footprints

A friend’s divorce

My spouse’s discouragements

And my own

How to find time for what I treasure

And silence enough to renew my spirit

When I look at my own list of concerns, I see more clearly how the tectonic shifts in American public life affect my personal life, directly and daily, as I decide how much of the Times to read, whether I have a whole hour for Democracy Now!, how many petitions to sign or phone calls to make to my senators, when to write an op-ed piece, and when to let it all go, look around, be local, be humbly, simply present, and lean into the sun so I can bloom where I’m planted.

Making a list of current concerns can also help us notice where our energies tend to flow as we live and move among people we love—how others’ losses, illnesses, and fluctuations of fortune affect us. We may be led once again to reflect on the importance of strengthening personal boundaries, for instance, or on the difference between generous sympathy and anxious hovering.

In the list above, for example, I included “a friend’s divorce,” recognizing how deeply her pain and her husband’s tugged at my heart, and at the same time how important it was that I confine my concerns for the most part to prayer and availability. They needed space and time to work out their differences—not the “help” I might too readily be inclined to offer. So I refrained from calling to ask how it was going, which was a challenge for me. But naming it on my list of concerns gave it a place on my “mattering map” and reminded me I could own the concern without having to quell it by acting in ways that suited my needs rather than theirs. Even “my spouse’s discouragements,” which I witness at much closer range than those of my friends, are not, really, my own. As I include them on my list of concerns, I am again aware of my own need for ongoing discernment about when to “help” and when to let him walk, pray, wrestle, and reflect until he’s ready to talk.

These lists are where we get explicit with ourselves: each item nudges us toward candor and clarity. They put our concerns in sharper focus and motivate us to address them in healthy and thoughtful ways, helping us find and hold appropriate distances. And naming our concerns allows us not only to revisit them but to revise them in in ways that funnel them into prayer or action, or simply allows us to lay them down gently and, as my mother often put it, “Give them to God.”

Some of our concerns we can address on our own; some we need others’ help with; some only God can manage. Naming them, specifying them, seeing them before us on the page, can help us distinguish which is which.

Some lists to try:

Concerns about [a particular loved one]

Who is attending to public concerns I care about

Undue pressures on young people I love

When to speak out

How to sustain my own mental/emotional health

The following excerpt is from MAKE A LIST: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open our Hearts (Eerdmans Publishing Co.), by Marilyn McEntyre.

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