The Power of Reflection: How I Find Wisdom in the Rearview

Woman sitting on window seat journaling
Photo by sweetlifediabetes on Unsplash

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

So far in my life, I’ve found these words — attributed to John Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist whose belief in democracy and work on educational reform have had lasting impact in the United States — to be true. The season of struggle, the familial event, the educational milestone, the first job, or the relationship are all rife with potential meaning and learning, but often, in order to access that meaning and learning, we need to spend some time reflecting on the unfolding of the experience.

RELATED: How to Keep a Spiritual Journal (With Writing Prompts to Get You Started!)

At this moment in time, I’m finding myself in a particularly reflective mood surrounding a current life event: I’m leaving my first “adult” job as the Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic church in the greater Boston area. 

To be clear, I’ve left many a summer gig in my years of gainful employment — starting with my “Mother’s Helper” position the summer between seventh and eighth grade — and I’ve completed numerous internships and field education positions throughout my education. But this is the first position that, without a clearly defined ending, is only concluding because — after eight years of working for the church — I’m choosing to submit a resignation letter and say a formal goodbye. 

I’m leaving on reasonable and positive terms (my family relocated during the pandemic, and it no longer serves the church best to have a staff person working so remotely, and I’m making a career pivot as well), yet I’m still feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the significance of this change in my life. 

It’s a moment that will benefit from reflection, and here’s how I’m engaging in the process. 

I consider the highlights

Reflecting most often happens in my journal, where I unceremoniously jot down a few headings and make bulleted lists under them. Giving myself permission to write in incomplete sentences without clear transitions from one idea to the next helps me to focus on the task at hand (reflecting) without getting paralyzed by the writing process (seeking beautiful syntax). 

My first heading: highlights. I start by listing some of my favorite memories and moments from an experience because, quite simply, it puts me in a warm, happy, and grateful mindset, which sets the tone for my reflective process. 

Some of my highlights are singular, standout moments (e.g. a Confirmation retreat when I got emails from parents afterward telling me that their teens reported having a great time; the baby shower that our church community threw for my first child), but a lot of the highlights are summaries of ongoing, positive experiences (early mornings in my sunny office; time spent chatting with church members during coffee hour). 

I make a list of highlights that often spans pages, and I always leave room to come back and add more as I think of them throughout the reflective process. 

I consider the greatest challenges

Next, I make a list of challenges that I faced while going through an experience. I don’t do this in order to dwell on the negative, or even in an attempt to “keep it real” (though I do think that there’s merit in resisting valorizing the past; all experiences contain their highs and their lows and remembering that nothing is perfect helps me enter the next experience with realistic expectations), but rather because I know that some of my greatest learnings come from overcoming (or at least getting through) challenges. 

For instance, challenges that come to mind as I consider my work as a Director of Faith Formation included accepting negative feedback/complaints/criticisms from parishioners with an open mind and thick skin and working with a boss early on in my tenure who was mentally and emotionally checked out from the job.

RELATED: Why Keeping a Journal in My 20s Changed My Life

I consider my key takeaways

My key takeaways almost always stem from the first two lists of highlights and challenges, and more frequently than not, they also come from the latter. 

In the case of leaving my church job, a key takeaway is that there are always people to whom I can go for guidance and support in the absence of an encouraging boss. I floundered a bit during my first two years at the church job when the priest there — who was a warm and gentle man but had physical and mental health issues that prevented him from being available to me — failed to provide any guidance. 

I wish I had known then that there were so many other people at the parish to whom I could have turned for input, suggestions, and affirmation (because there were! I just didn’t know to seek them out). A key takeaway for me now is to always seek alternative lines of support if the established ones aren’t filling my needs.

Reflection isn’t alchemy: It doesn’t turn the dreadful into the delightful, or the other way around. But what reflecting does accomplish is that it helps us dig deep into an experience and to notice and remember the highlights, challenges, and resulting takeaways. Because chances are that most of our life experiences contain both the dreadful and the delightful, and that we have much to gain from examining both. 

Content Survey (Inline)

We want to know what you think!