William Fielding Ogburn Diaries Forward

William Fielding OgburnFor twenty years I have been writing in a diary some two or three hundred words once or twice a week with occasional lapses of weeks and months. In reading over these entries I noted that often less space was given to the recordings or happenings in my daily life than to comment on them. These reflections on daily events apparently gave me a certain pleasurable satisfaction.

And so I thought that the lives of many of us would be less boring and routine if we reflected more. I recently met a man of action retired at fifty. He complained that life was dull because he had nothing to do. I wondered if more contemplation would not have made it less uninteresting.

The events on which these reflections have been written are not exceptional. The lives of most of us are not filled with adventure. Few of us hunt big game in Africa or serve our country as secret agents among the enemy. There is much of the ordinary in our family life, in making a living, and in our community relationships. The ordinary can be made to glow, though, sometimes dimly, sometimes brightly, from the radiation of thought, not necessarily prolonged or profound, but the casual kind that comes easily as do free associations.

The life of the scholar is said to be a life of thought rather than a life of action. They are, though, complementary. The response to action without thinking is merely the response of the animal in us, as when we fear, hurt, or are in anger. Such reactions have no more significance than a display of emotion. Thought about action clothes emotion with meanings.
Action does not have a monopoly of adventure, for there is much adventure in the realm of ideas. What a thrill there was in the discovery of the concept of the "unconscious," and the role it plays in determining our behavior! Such a thrill is quite comparable to that of a deep sea diver who discovers a new world of life on the bottom of the sea. Then there is the experience of readjusting one's whole system of values to the discovery of a big new idea such as the one so vividly set forth in Sumner's "Folkways," namely, that the mores can make anything right or wrong.

But the pleasures of thinking are generally quieter. The homes of well-to-do Hindus have a room set aside for meditation, in which no other activity takes place at any time. Here is a suggestion for American architects; who might argue, though, that such a room would never be used! Though meditation may be well set apart for a quiet hour in a quiet place, reflection can take place anywhere at any time.

Elders are more contemplative than youth, and reflection to them is one of their joys. They have had a longer life of experience, of observation, and have hence built up over the years more associations of ideas. For them the tides or emotional drive are receding, leaving more opportunity for detachment in thinking. The coming of the age of contemplation varies with individuals. But there is no reason why youth should not think as well as act. Certainly life will have richer meanings if we cultivate early the habit of detached thinking.

The preceding paragraphs may lead the reader to expect something like the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The pages which follow are not a book of proverbs, but a diary of day-by-day living interspersed with frequent passages of comment thereon, which is modestly offered in the hope that it shows that a life unadventurous in action need not be a dull one, if we make a hobby of reflecting on what we do and what we observe.

The pages of this chronicle reveal another trait, curiosity, that makes living more interesting, thought it may not lead to unusual happiness. Curiosity in thinking is to be recommended, though, more than curiosity in action. There is a homely saying that "curiosity killed a cat," but a cat is not a thinking animal. A general curiosity is associated with a wide range of interests, to which the perfectionist may object. But many interests do bring variety, which is the opposite of monotony. Many interests are more likely to be associated with the amateur than with the professional. Furthermore, amateurs have more opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of learning something new, which is itself adventurous, than does the specialist.
Contemplation, love of ideas and curiosity are general traits. Two specific traits are manifest in these entries, traits which have brought pleasure to the author, and which he thinks should bring pleasure to others. These are love of nature and an aesthetic appreciation. Surely the world of "nature" and the world of the "beautiful" are great areas where the limited exploration and observation of a novitiate bring many delights especially to those who are much occupied with self and are therefore in need.