Nothing shakes me out of my self-centeredness, ethnocentrism, and poor-me problems more than reading biographies and fiction about the struggles of passionate men and women in other times and places. The first book that called me out on my bull#h*t was Les Miserables. When I read it many years ago, the plights of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette, representing the real problems of the time period, shook me hardily out of the illusion of my “difficult life.” Other books followed suit: Roots, Tale of Two Cities, A Good Earth, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Hiding Place, etc. And, more currently, Jungle of Stone, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Endurance, Pillars of the Earth, Outlander, The Glass Castle, Same Kind of Different as Me, and countless others.
I hope you don’t have the same tendency that I have to become a small-minded cry-baby. But if you ever do, I hope you will let a book rescue you.
Occasionally, someone tells a story that changes your life.
I can’t quit thinking about this book, not only because of the harrowing adventures it took to discover the lost Mayan Civilization and the brave and brilliant Stevens and Catherwood that made it their calling, but because the vastness of a “universe,” I had been only remotely aware of, has expanded my own. Jungle of Stone.
Confronted by these two noble, gifted, driven, and humble explorers, I am inspired and humbled by my lack of knowledge, scope, tenacity, and awareness. Thanks, William Carlsen, for excavating the story for me and forcing me out of my own “backyard.”
Even if you have no interest in ancient history or archeology, the life-stories of John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood will enlarge your existence.
There is room for misunderstanding in every story, especially if I just have the headline or, even, the who, what, where, when, and how.
It’s still oh so easy to be self-righteous, insensitive, despairing, or harsh in my conclusions, cheating someone out of the benefit of a doubt that I so cherish myself. The stories I tell myself about others, myself, or God often lack the most important element: the element of the mystery inside the story.
Gene McGuire’s new book Unshackled: From Ruin to Redemption is a great reminder of the remarkable mystery hidden in the story. Gene served thirty-five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, yet managed to come out with this big smile and a great future. Now, that is mysterious…and worth an investigation into the other parts of the story!
In Kate Braestrup’s book Here If You Need Me she tells the story of coping with her husband’s premature death through the lens of her work as a Maine Game Warden Chaplain.
I resonated with her description of the “parallel worlds” of light and darkness and the “hinge” of death or tragedy that can swing us suddenly from one into the other.
We can live casually, surrounded by the comfort of things and people we love, but, we must always remember the temporal nature of this state. Things will change; our whole life will swing into uncharted territory. And, I am convinced, along with Kate, that if we want to know where God is in all of the upheaval, we must look for love…
…in whatever world we find ourselves.
I cannot read a book, take time to hear another’s story, or let a movie give me its message, without coming back to my regular life changed. Forrest Gander captured this truth in his intro to the new book of Neruda’s lost poems:
“The truth is that I disappeared from myself. I was concentrated entirely into the durable moment of translation–which begins in humility, a sublimation of the self so extreme that the music of someone else’s mind might be heard. And for a while, no remnant of me existed outside of that moment.” – Forrest Gander (translator of The Lost Neruda Poems)
When my friend gave me this book, I wasn’t very excited about reading obscure love poems, yet the book begin to change me in the prologue when the translator mentioned the same skepticism when asked to translate the work.
Today will change me…if I allow it. It will improve me if I listen to the music of someone else’s mind intently enough to receive the gifts they offer and translate them to my own journey home.
In her book, Thick Face, Black Heart, Asian-American best-selling author Chin-Ning Chu was painfully honest about her life:
“One morning, years ago, I woke up with an overwhelming feeling of aloneness overtaking my soul. I felt as if my spirit were covered by layers of dark clouds. I lived but made no difference to the world… I stood alone in the pit of my soul. I felt the world could do very well without me. I didn’t see any hope, only despair. Then I picked up a book my parents had given me long ago: one I had never read…“
In Soaring, Chu heard the message that saved her life.
The author said, “if one is destined for great accomplishments, the preparation for the journey will be extensive.” She embraced the message, deciding that her pain had not been wasted. I’m glad she did, because I would need her book many years later.
They died broke. Thoreau died in a room with boxes of his unsold books. Poe was disrespected by the literary community. Van Gough couldn’t sell enough art to pay his rent.
When I feel underrated, ignored, undervalued, underpaid, unimpressive, or like I’m expending way too much time and effort without any significant pay off, I remember these men.
I remember to never give up, to be unattached to a particular outcome, to value myself and my work even if I am not sure others will.
Doing what I feel compelled to do may not turn out the way I imagined it would, but I will never have to regret what I become by doing so.
New York Times Bestsellers, Accidental Saints and Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber are refreshingly honest books for anyone who can’t stand pious religious talk. In her brutally honest book about pastoring, she doesn’t just admit her past, she admits her present; the real petty, self-righteous, unloving stuff that most of us try to hide.
And I especially love her willingness to admit she needs forgiveness for being an a**hole;
“‘God please help me not be an asshole’ is about as common a prayer as I pray in my life.”
Good for those of us who have trouble with church but miss community.
Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, said that it was not necessary to believe that the world was good in order to be hopeful.
That is critical for me to remember…when the darkness of this world takes me by surprise, chases me into a dark alley of bitterness, or shocks me with its brutality.
Because I can live my life on a sunlit avenue, I can also fool myself into believing that the darkness doesn’t exist.
Then, darkness will intrude like an uninvited stranger.
Or, one day, I may take a new route home, turn the corner, and stumble upon shocking squalor or agony. There, I will collapse (along with my illusion) into a shell of myself, under a heavy blanket of despair…
…unless I prepare for it and bring my own light.
The reason that what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry is because the heart needs training from books in order to absorb, appreciate, and honor events and individuals in our lives enough to be equal to them. Otherwise, we are subject to the vicissitudes of every wave, every challenge, and every disappointment.
Men…and women…even fantastic men and women, can never be all or enough for the deep need of our hearts; our hearts that are born in the deep well of eternity.
I totally love Nina George for saying this through her character in this good book.