One of the great joys in life is when a book finds me and helps unlock some future potential. When I'm in a place where I'm searching for answers to a problem I cannot solve, or even begin to solve, there always comes a moment when I realize I need to find the book that will help me work out whatever is going on in my life. Sometimes I search the book out and sometimes it finds me through a conversation or recommendation. The right book can be tremendously therapeutic, especially when the majority of us are trying to figure out what the hell we're doing. Self-knowledge is one of my greatest passions. It’s an unrivaled feeling when I can conquer an ingrained habit that is a road block to where I want to go.
Everyone's journey is different but we all have many common themes along the way. Books are like markers, helping to inform my perspective on the world or just remind me of what I already knew. The following books have been significant guide posts that have given me perspective, provided solace, validated existing beliefs or inspired me to push beyond what I thought I was capable of.
As A Man Thinketh – James Allen
“Men imagine thought can be kept secret, but it cannot. It rapidly crystalizes into habit, and habit solidifies into circumstance.”
In this tiny volume, James Allen eloquently summarizes the power one's mind has over their circumstances into perfectly crafted insights. Reality can be quite subjective and how we interpret it is entirely up to us. We are each an individual who strings together our own experiences and influences to form a lens through which we view the world. Everyone has their own lens and therefore, although common themes proliferate we are still left to see things how we choose. Look at things negatively (easy to do) and you will be living in a negative world. Look at problems as opportunities for growth (quite the challenge) and your existence will open up to possibilities that are many times unforeseen. This may be simplifying life into two tidy buckets but at the end of the day we are the only ones who live with our own infinite thoughts. If we are not controlling them then they are controlling us.
Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl
The first half of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir chronicles in horrifying detail his experience of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz . He observed himself as well as many others struggle to survive their unbearable circumstances and determined that if one has meaning in life they can endure the most painful, absurd and dehumanizing situation. Based on these observations, in the second half of his book, Frankl describes the tenets of his theory which determines that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.
Obviously reading about a concentration camp survivor’s experience puts things in perspective and makes my first world problems seem pretty insignificant but that isn’t Frankl’s intention. He believes that suffering is inevitable and avoiding it is futile.
Rather, one should be worthy of one's suffering and make meaning of it instead of surrendering to nihilism, bitterness and despair. He uses poetic, moving anecdotes from the concentration camps to illustrate those souls who find a deeper humanity from their suffering or who become animals relegated to nothing more than teeth-clenched self-preservation. Frankl’s intention here is to help us find our own personal meaning.
The Alchemist – Paulo Coehlo
Like all great parables, The Alchemist disguises meaningful life lessons in a thoughtful and entertaining story of which I’ve read several times. Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, seeks worldly treasure and ventures beyond his comfortably predictable life in Spain to find that the treasure he is after requires sacrifice and sometimes suffering. Along the way he meets a cast of characters, including an alchemist, who teachers him about following his heart and listening to the voice within himself. The treasure he discovers ends up being much more significant than he anticipated.
The emphasis of following one’s heart or listening to one’s intuition left an indelible impression on me. Irrational fear, insecurity and complacency are easy to succumb to and can often overpower one’s intuitive sense. During his travels, Santiago has a conversation with his heart and asks it why people don’t listen to their own, in which it tells him that many are often afraid to go where their heart is directing them, that it’s usually somewhere unfamiliar and often uncomfortable, even scary. Sometimes in life we stay in a relationship that isn’t working or at a job we hate or in a town we want to escape because many times fear overpowers our dreams. We also let other people’s fears and insecurities about not pursuing their own dreams convince us not to pursue our own. Santiago’s heart tells him that the more one listens to their heart and follows their intuition the louder the heart speaks. But it also gets quieter when it is ignored because it causes the person too much pain. I know that the more I listen to my own intuition, recognize my fear for what it is, as well as other’s, and push beyond, the more fulfilling life will continue to be.
The Road Less Traveled – M. Scott Peck
“Life is difficult.” Those are the first three words of this life-changing book that Scott Peck published in 1978 and of which my mom gave me her original copy some fifteen years ago. Peck goes on to say that once we accept this as a truth then we can stop believing that life should be easy and move onto actually solving our problems instead of moaning incessantly about them privately or to one another. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. Peck believes, like Viktor Frankl, that we define our own personal meaning in life through solving the many problems we face. This remarkable book is divided into four sections: Discipline, Love, Growth & Religion and Grace. I have found the first two speak to me the loudest yet I appreciate Peck’s thoughtful approach to communicating on all these subjects.
I have underlined and earmarked this book obsessively, soaking up the author’s words of wisdom found throughout. His points of view on the merits of discipline are articulated with nurturing skill and intellect as are his thoughts on love. I have yet to find a better description of what a loving relationship should be and thankful to have been given these insights so that I could apply them to my own life and relationship. I may of eventually found a way to some of these insights on my own but I am forever grateful to have been given this book when I did as it has always provided me with solace and ignited my enthusiasm for self-knowledge. The New York Times quote on the back cover sums it up: “One of the most important books you will ever read.”
The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead is a highly entertaining drama that delves deep into personal philosophy and forces one to reflect upon their own existence as an individual within a conformist society. The book’s uncompromising hero, Howard Roarke, embodies unbreakable integrity amidst a perfectly crafted cast of characters representing the diverse spectrum of human nature. What I appreciate most about this juxtaposition is that although I identify with Roarke I can’t help but recognize aspects of myself in some of the book’s less desirable characters and so I’m compelled to internalize the story’s central theme much deeper. Rand emphasizes the importance of integrity when we are faced with societal pressures of the herd mentality. The conformist mass is so ubiquitous that individual expression is often diluted from an early age resulting in one more cog in the machine. Roarke has a personal code so admirable yet at the same time tortuous to his livelihood. Society will not bend to his beliefs and although noble, he becomes somewhat of an outcast while other characters much less noble gain wealth, success and notoriety. This theme is as true today as it ever was.