Pope’s Personal Papers

I just heard that John Paul II requested that his personal papers be burned. I don’t know if it’s the historian in me or just the fact that I’m a Mormon, but I gasped at this news. I couldn’t help being curious about why he would have wanted this record destroyed. As a self-consciously journaling people would it ever cross any Latter-day Saint’s mind to make such a request?

This got me thinking about the nature of our journaling. Knowing that what we write will be viewed by posterity, do we, consciously or not, write for an audience? If so, does it influence what we say and how we choose to say it? If we thought that burning our personal papers at the end were an option, would our journals be different?

I wonder how many people blog instead of journaling now? If blogging has become a substitute for journaling for some has the substance and style of their personal reflection changed or not?

43 comments for “Pope’s Personal Papers

  1. I know that Joseph Smith occasionally instructed that letters written by him dealing with things like plural marriage be destroyed. Fortunately for those of us who are professional historians his instructions were not always followed

  2. As a self-consciously journaling people would it ever cross any Latter-day Saint’s mind to make such a request?

    It’s not only crossed my mind, I am going to request that my journals be burned/destroyed when I die. I keep my journal for ME, and ME alone. It is a chronicle of my own progression, so that I can see where I was a few years ago and evaluate how I am doing based on that. That may be selfish, but there are things in there I never want my children or relatives to know.

    It all started when I was a missionary. Near the end of my mission, I took a look at some of my darker thoughts and entries and thought: “I don’t want anyone reading this- it’s downright depressing and uninspirational. And it’s completely unlike the Jordan that most people know. I’d just assume nobody meet the guy who wrote this stuff.” So I started editing it on the mission office computer and shredding the original page by page. Luckily for me, I only got through about 10 pages of this before I decided that cleaning up my journal was a complete waste of time, and that I needed the experiences I had recorded for my own development. I decided then and there that I would keep the journal as it was, and just let nobody read it, ever, under any circumstances, including after I died. I occasionally share snippets with my wife, but only if I read it out loud. That is the case with all my journals.

    Sometimes I do catch myself writing for an audience. Maybe I’m subconsciously afraid that my kids will find my journals or that they won’t honor a dying man’s request. (But they better.) All in all, though, since I decided that I want my journals destroyed when I die, I have been able to be much more honest in my assessment of things.

    I will probably, someday, start a sort of “personal history” based on my journaling efforts which I will allow to be kept after I die. Hopefully I will start it before I die, though.

  3. Given the recent reliability problems here at T&S, your thought might last longer in a journal that is burned upon your death than here. The sever could go up in flames anytime. Kaimi, please tell me there are regular off-site backups.

  4. I was interested to discover when I read Turley’s book on the Hoffman letters that Pres. Hinckley does not (or at least at that time did not) keep a journal. The author surmised that much of it had to do with liability issues. It seems that in today’s society that if the leader of a major organization wants his/her papers kept private or doesn’t want some of their personl decisions to hurt the organization (not referring here to anything re scandals) they have to either not keep personal papers or destroy them.

  5. As a conscientious and shy boy when I began writing at age 11 or 12, I was guarded about what I wrote in my journal. For instance, never until my college days did I ever mention any girl that I had a crush on in my journal. I just couldn’t be sure that a sibling or someone else would not find what I had written.

    There are a few things that I once thought that I never wanted to be read by anyone else. In hindsight, I now consider it an open book, and I am not ashamed to have gone through some severe crises and to have entries where my thinking was twisted or I was far too hard on myself or feeling quite guilty. I now consider it something that can help my future children (and spouse) gain faith and hope that we mere mortals can suffer despair, and find our way through it and experience great joy nonetheless.

    It took me a while to realize that my idiosyncrasies and quirks are what will make my journal much more interesting to other family members.

  6. Melissa, I think the Church wants members to self-edit every statement as if there were an audience, whether in one’s journal, letters, or conversation. After awhile, it may become difficult to distinguish the edited self from the authentic self.

    It seems that one of the purposes of a confidential journal is to record one’s authentic self despite pressures to self-edit in public statements or conversation. The fact that many early Saints were quite candid in their personal journals shows the value to posterity of NOT self-editing when writing in a personal journal.

  7. I don’t recall the exact speaker, but a Jungian psychologist once remarked that “The back is as big as the front.” I think the desire to destroy documents, pre- or post-mortem, is a desire to show a backless front.

  8. I never kept a journal. I do much better maintaining my family blog that I did in putting pen to paper. Plus I can add pictures, sound, video, and other interesting stuff.

    On the other hand, I’m definitely not as open on my blog as I would be in a written journal, were I to keep one.

  9. When I die, I want this blog buried with me, and all of my co-bloggers as well. And all you commenters too. Just like cats in an Egyptian tomb. Mwahahahaha.

  10. random John,

    We keep the regular off-site backups on the ghost site that we run with slashcode :)

  11. While I was a very sporadic journal writer in earlier years, I could never get into it precisely because I could never shake the feeling of having an audience (posterity). To me that meant I could not write with complete frankness and honesty. Writing something with the intent of having no one read it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the documents’ security. And anyway, my private thoughts can stay in my head; they’re not going anywhere!

    The insight about blogging replacing journal writing is an insightful one. At least, it applies to me: One of my motivations for starting a blog was to make the ‘inner me’ more widely known (even to my family), and ‘out there’ in a way my children may be able to appreciate at some future time. One is even more conscious of audience, but the interactivity and knowledge that’s actually being read by a handful of people make a big difference in motivation for me.

  12. Bah. My previous comment had a [evil snicker] in brackets that was lost. Must be a coding thing.

  13. While writing in my mission journal I often though about my inability to express exactly what I thought, or how my thoughts might change without recording them, and how future generations might judge me or make arguments about my thinking based on my journal. I think that gave me additional insight into the scriptures and early church leaders–that I should cut them some slack because they probably (most likely) had the same problems I did/do.

  14. It would be nice for historians to have the Pope’s personal papers. But I think what we DO have is pretty extraordinary — the Pope’s last will & testament has been made public and all over the papers today. I haven’t read the text of the document, but apparently he frankly considers his own mortality, and possibly resigning the papacy. Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to read the last will and testament of past Mormon leaders (assuming they are more than rote legal documents)?

  15. If I were anyone famous, I would definitely not want academics and historians to be second-guessing me based on my personal papers for decades to come.

  16. Thomas Mann burned his early journals before he died. I won’t do that, but I will include as the last page of my journal a list of Swiss bank account numbers so my posterity can consume the rest of their natural lives in a pointless search for unearned wealth.

    Seriously, I’ve found my journal an important record of what I was really thinking at the time, rather than of the story I invent afterwards. And good ink on good paper is easily the most cost-effective way to create a record that can several last centuries.

  17. A related question — what if the contents of one’s papers are potentially hurtful to others.

    A simple case might be if my papers reveal that I hate my co-bloggers. Do I want them to read that, after I’m gone? (This occurred with some Supreme Court justices and led to no shortage of bad feelings).

    On a broader level, what if I’ve got a serious issue that’s potentially hurtful to others? What if I’ve carried on a lengthy affair, for example? (I know, if I’m having an affair, the way posterity looks at me when I’m gone is the least of my problems. But it’s still a concern). Assuming that I’ve concealed it, done some amount of private repentance and come to peace with myself (that may or may not be okay with the Lord, but setting that aside for a moment), is it appropriate for me to ask that my papers be burned so that my wife/kids/grandkids don’t learn about my hidden secret? Or what if it’s another explosive sort of hidden secret — I hate my younger brother; I hate my wife; I have same-sex attraction; I’m in love with my sister-in-law; etc. It seems like those kinds of revelations could negatively affect family ties for generations to come.

  18. Kaimi,

    Does your post assume that it’s normally inappropriate to make a request that your papers be burned? If you’re not assuming that it’s normally inappropriate, then of course it is appropriate to ask that your papers be burned. They are yours- you can do whatever you want with them.

  19. Re: Kaimi’s #21

    There are some things that are certainly unwise to write and save. I think a simple test is, “Would I or someone else be terribly embarrassed or ashamed about this entry 5 years from now?” If not, then it’s usually okay for me to write it.

    President Spencer W. Kimball addressed this matter in the December 1980 Ensign, page 60:

    “Your journal should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are “made up” for a public performance. There is a temptation to paint one’s virtues in rich color and whitewash the vices, but there is also the opposite pitfall of accentuating the negative. Personally I have little respect for anyone who delves into the ugly phases of the life he is portraying, whether it be his own or another’s. The truth should be told, but we should not emphasize the negative. Even a long life full of inspiring experiences can be brought to the dust by one ugly story. Why dwell on that one ugly truth about someone whose life has been largely circumspect?”

  20. When I was on my mission I knew an elder who kept two journals. One was a journal “for show” that he kept on his desktop for curious zone leaders and such to find and leaf through. This one lacked anything negative or controversial–or real, for that matter. His “real” journal he kept stashed away safely in his trunk.

  21. Even a long life full of inspiring experiences can be brought to the dust by one ugly story. Why dwell on that one ugly truth about someone whose life has been largely circumspect?

    Why should we allow one ugly story to bring our consideration of a long life full of inspiring experiences to the dust? I haven’t allowed many more than one ugly story from my own life to lead me to conclude that life is no longer worth living.

    I’d rather we reform our scandal-seeking attention and tell all the truth than to try to tell only some of the truth and deceive others (and ourselves?) that there is nothing significant left out.

  22. Here is a question:

    Is it a sin or slothful to decide not to allow out posterity to read our records? In other words, is it a sin or slothful to use the records for US, to improve OURSELVES and document how we have improved, rather than using them as heirlooms to pass on to future generations?

  23. Just draw a little red heart, red diamond, black “club” or black “spade” on each page with a number from 1-10 or letter K, Q, or J, on the top of each page, and again, upside down at the bottom of each page. That makes your journal pages playing cards. Your righteous posterity will shrink from shuffling through them then, and your secrets will be safe, burned or not. :)

    (Your posterity WILL be righteous, right?) ;)

  24. If you have things that you really don’t want people to see, or if you want to protect somebody else’s privacy (perhaps someone named in your papers) it makes more sense to destroy them than to lock them in a vault in the Vatican or in Salt Lake City. Use the storage space for documents everyone can benefit from, instead. I think it makes more sense to destroy the papers than to try to keep them private by locking them up indefinitely.

  25. Hm…maybe to safeguard the identity of “pectore” cardinals? Or…mayhap they are his ‘private’ thoughs; and he wouldn’t want them construed as ‘papal’?

  26. Maybe I’m narcissistic, but I have real problems keeping a journal because I don’t really feel like anyone’s going to be reading it. Blogs solve this problem for me, as well as letters. Knowing someone is reading it, and hopefully will reply makes all the difference. I’m pretty open and honest, so I don’t think the audience changes things.

  27. I don’t keep a journal now, but kept quite a detailed one over the course of about 20 odd years. Most of it is about the kids growing up, which I think (hope) will be of interest to them, but there is plenty of stuff in there where I’ve come back from church, having been upset by various members, and I’ve vented my displeasure all over the page, mentioning various names in a somewhat derogatory turn of phrase. I’ve thought about deleting these (as they show me in a bad light I guess), but then refrained. If we only show our ‘good’ side to the world, then how will our descendents (a) know what we are really like and (b) cope with their own frailties? Hopefully they can look back and say well look at grandma ann, she was a wonderful person, but she struggled at times, but kept going – so can I. (Well that’s my reasoning).

    Incidentally when I look back over those years I am amazed at how much I accomplished compared to now. At the time of writing I was really down on myself because I thought I didn’t do enough with the kids, in my callings, visiting teaching, etc. Looking back now – I was wonderwoman!

  28. If something you wrote in your journal might damage other people if read by others, remove those pages and destroy them now. Whatever catharsis you derive from writing it down is outweighed by the damage that could be done if you were unable to prevent others from reading it. Don’t leave spiritual stumbling blocks or information landmines in the path of innocent others, and don’t count on other people to clean them up for you after you’re gone.

  29. This morning’s New York Times has an article on the Pope’s will. The article, written by Daniel Watkin, says the Pope asked to have his “private notes” burned. Nothing is said about “letters” or “papers,” several far more inclusive categories. It seems the Pope is not saying expunge all my private thoughts from the public record.

  30. I kept a journal only during my mission. That one is definitely going into the fire on my death as I tended to really vent about all of the crap I observed in the mission leadership. Norway 1968-1970.

  31. How can anyone (except maybe the Pope?) be sure that one’s death wishes will be respected and followed?

    My mother-in-law wanted a lot of stuff done with her possessions and property, and it isn’t practical or even physically possible to do all she wanted. The way she wanted her remains handled is unlawful, for one thing.

    Her almost feral, non-housebroken cats, had to go to a no-kill animal shelter–that was the closest we could come to doing what she wanted, as none of us were able (or, frankly, willing) to take them.

    Just saying, if you want something done, and it really matters to you, you’d better see to it yourself while you’re able. My MIL knew she was dying and she procrastinated dealing with the problem of her cats because she’d miss them too much.

    If she’d wanted something special done with all her papers, we might not have had TIME to do it, and there were so many people in and out of her home in her final weeks that a lot of things went missing. Hospice workers stole a lot of stuff, including papers. We’ll never know the extent of the loss because we really don’t know what there might have been, and we couldn’t find most of the stuff she talked about.

  32. Sheri Lynn writes:

    “How can anyone (except maybe the Pope?) be sure that one’s death wishes will be respected and followed?”

    It’s simple — you talk to an estate planning lawyer. You write a will, or put assets in trust, or both.

    If I want my guitar to go to my brother Danny, I can say “I give my guitar to Danny.” I can place conditions on this as well — “I give my guitar to Danny, provided that he takes guitar lessons by age 25; otherwise, I give it to my cousin Ricky.”

    And that’s the sort of thing that your mother (or anyone) could do by will — “I give my cats to my son Danny.”

    Now, what you _can’t_ do is guarantee any action by another person. You can dispose of property — “Danny gets the cats.” And you can dispose of property contingent on actions by another person — i.e., you can say “and Danny gets the house and the swiss bank account too, provided that he also takes care of the cats.” And you can give alternative recipients — “Danny gets the cats, but if he doesn’t want them, then they go to the Humane Society.”

    But that sort of carrot-stick is all that one can do to try to influence actions. If Danny doesn’t care about the financial incentives, then there’s no way to _force_ him to take the cats.

  33. I should note two quick other general points:

    1. Everyone should have a will. If you die intestate (without a will) you’re just asking for problems. And if there’s any chance that family members will disagree about who should receive what — any possibility of problems at all — then you should talk to a lawyer in drafting your will, rather than just filling in a form (the form is better than intestacy, however). An estate planning attorney won’t be particularly cheap (probably a few hundred dollars at a minimum), but will help you plan out to protect against contigencies, in a way that a $20 fill-in-the-blanks form will won’t do.

    2. I’m not an estate planning attorney, so don’t ask me. :P

  34. Responding to Jordan’s question, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using writing as a self-improvement process, without respect or regard for other viewership. We are entitled to as much privacy from our heirs as we are from our neighbors. What concerns me is when we simple delete the information that doesn’t fit our model of ourselves or of our views of what we should be or whatever and then foist the remainder off as anything other than poorly-crafted (because spiritually false) fiction.

  35. Dave you wrote,

    “I think the Church wants members to self-edit every statement as if there were an audience, whether in one?s journal, letters, or conversation. After awhile, it may become difficult to distinguish the edited self from the authentic self.”

    I thought this was an intriguing thing to say. What makes you think that the Church encourages “self-editing” ? Please say more.

    Both ukann and Kaimi bring up the issue of whether or not to retain writings that may prove to be hurtful to others. I am doubleminded about this. On one hand, the historian in me feels protective of all written records. While we should probably be more protective of living people than of documents, it is difficult to know how people will be affected by what they find in an ancestor’s journal. Even negative reports may be beneficial in some way. I’m glad to know, for example, that my great grandfather PD resented being sent by the prophet to live in Emery County. He went, but he wasn’t happy about it. In fact, I don’t think he ever really got over it. Being sent to Emery County felt like being exiled to him and he was spitting mad about it.

    I’m grateful to know that another great grandmother was opinionated and sort of hard to deal with. When her husband was asked how he felt about taking on a second wife, his response was, “Another wife? Hell, I can’t handle the one I’ve got.” Lizzie was headstrong and independent. Some people even thought she was mad. She actually died in a flashflood because she insisted on delivering soup to a sick neighbor several miles away against everyone’s advice. There’s something endearing to me about the thought of her out there in the desert with her bucket.

    My great grandpa George died on his mission to New Zealand. When Grandma Katherine, who was left as widow with 4 little children, found out about it from a neighbor who’d read it in the Church News instead of being notified by the church, she was devastated. I’m glad she didn’t edit her rage or despair. Nothing sanitized about grandma Kate’s grief.

    There’s much for me to learn from this family record. I can see my grandpa PD both as an obedient and hardworking man, but also as a real human being with weaknesses and struggles. Grandpa George was a martyr for the faith, but it permanently changed grandma Kate. There was no way to ever make it okay. She was never herself again. Knowing this makes the fact that she continued faithful and raised the children in the Church that much more meaningful to me. And, I’m glad to know grandma Lizzie not only as an outspoken model of early Mormon feminism but also as the sortof crazy lady she was.

    I would not love these ancestors as I do if they weren’t made real to me by the candid records they kept about themselves and each other.

  36. I don’t want to be “made real” to my descendants. In fact, I don’t want to be made anything at all to them. Those who know me, know me and they can tell stories. But I don’t want some quack historian or descendant with some sort of personal agenda going through my stuff a few decades or centuries down the road. Not that my life would be interesting enough for a historian to notice, but if I were the pope it would be and I wouldn’t want people to exploit my personal writings for any reason. Especially not for any sort of “inspiration.”

    That’s why it makes sense to me to arrange for all personal writings (like journals, etc.- that obviously does not include letters I have written or blog posts like this one) to be destroyed. My writings are not meant to inspire, they are meant to be a record and help me keep track of how I am doing in all aspects of life, so that ten years from now I can look back and say- I was thinking such and such ten years ago, and now my thinking has progressed to this and that. (or regressed…) Or I was doing this or that and now I have improved that behavior.

    My question is whether this philosophy makes me a bad church member. We have been asked to keep journals, but is there an explicit instruction for us to make those writings available for posterity?

    (p.s. what “new, pessimistic” Jordan? This is the new, over-worked and over-stressed Jordan. Welcome to the real world?)

  37. But Sheri Lynn, what if those things you’ve written about someone else were something that was essential to your own identity. Like Melissa, I am two-minded about this issue. For most of my life I have kept my journal very sanitized because I was worried that my journal would be read some day. I didn’t mention names of anyone just about, other than people I had run into, everyday occurances, etc. Then I started opening up, recording my “true history” and I feel it has done wonders in helping me actually deal with the big issues in my life. I don’t feel like I need to protect that annonymity of the people that have influenced my life for good and for bad. And I’m not talking about gossiping or bad mouthing or venting about others–I’m talking about writing down things that happened, people involved, etc. Maybe some day I will feel like I need to destroy these pages, but I hope not. It might come as a shock to my children or grandchildren that I lived certain experiences but I hope they will view me as Melissa views her ancestors, with charity and an open heart.

  38. For most of my life I have kept my journal very sanitized because I was worried that my journal would be read some day.

    Precisely my point. I want my journal to be realistic, so I can realistically see how much I have grown or how I have fallen short. If I write with the expectation that it will be destroyed when it’s not longer useful to me, then I don’t feel the need to “sanitize” anything or show any sort of consideration at all to any kind of audience.

  39. “Not all truths should be expressed.”

    “Oh, that mine enemy might have written a book!”

    As I was reading through this thread, those thoughts kept running through my mind. Personally, I wouldn’t want any Freudian, Jungian, or any other kind of psychologist clawing his way through my papers and triumphantly declaring that he had found the real ME, only to be refuted 25 years or so later, when the wheel of psychology had turned, and his ideas had been totally discredited.

    My innermost thoughts will remain mine.

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