10 Books To Calibrate Your View Of Suffering
My family and I are suffering; over the last two months, our life has been hard for us. Four people trying to live squished together in a four-bedroom house, uncomfortable face masks, and not being able to eat at our favorite restaurants, and zoom fatigue…. We are low on toilet paper, our neighborhood playground and pool is closed off, the line outside Target was over 30 minutes long, and to top it off we can’t even get the brand of rice that my family likes. COVID-19 is by far the worst tragedy that our family has experienced.
However, it only takes a moment of some historical perspective to quickly change that view. When I place my COVID experience next to that of war, slavery, famine, and other human hardships I quickly see that the inconveniences experienced over the last few weeks pale in comparison to some of the histories true hardship.
Below are 10 books that have helped me shift my perspective from one of suffering, to one of gratefulness.
If you thought the “Little House on a Prairie” series was a cute story about an idyllic life growing up 150 years ago you would be wrong. This family packs up what they can in a covered wagon, leaves family and friends behind and sets off to find “a better life.” After a challenging trip they find a parcel of land they can lay claim to, build a cabin and work hard to cultivate the land. They have only just moved in when the government changes the boundaries of the reservation- forcing them again to leave their home. Season after season they face trials including locus, drought, disease, staggering poverty and uncertainty. Yet throughout it all Laura joyfully captures the good, the happy memories and the love that was shared. This is a great book to share with your children and to stimulate conversations about privilege and perspective.
If you haven’t’ read this book yet- do nothing else until you do. The story of this epic Arctic adventure is one of leadership, dedication, survival, incredible resilience, and yes, unimaginable suffering.
The year was 1915, Ernest Shackelton and 27 crew set off on an arctic exploration. Their ship, the endurance, quickly became stuck in the ice rendering it disabled. The men spent the next 19 months in self-rescue as they made their way towards the closest inhabited island, South Georgia. The men faced freezing temperatures, meager rations, illness, and the daily physical strain of covering nearly 1000 miles of dangerous terrain including ice flows and arctic waters using only their lifeboats. For 19 months they persisted and the remarkable thing about it was that all the men were saved!
So far this COVID containment has lasted… 10 weeks? Shackleton spent 19 months in the ice…
Shackleton’s Way is a phenomenal read to keep the duration of your suffering in perspective and you may learn a thing or two about a great leader while you are at it!
Tom Brokaw became interested in this generation after covering the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the D-Day Invasion. His book artfully describes the lives of Americans born in the 1920s. This group grew up in the great depression. The economy was devastated, banks failed, unemployment skyrocketed and poverty was commonplace. No sooner had the nation recovered when the world was thrown into turmoil with the rise of the Nazi Party and World War II. The Greatest Generation now was faced with defending American’s Freedom while fighting overseas. Those at home faced imposed rationing of food items like butter, sugar, and canned goods. They feared for the lives of their Fathers, their Husbands, their children who had gone to war. For years they watched the news, praying and hoping for a return of their loved ones, a return to peace, and a return to prosperity.
The parallels to today are clear. As we struggle with the unknown, as we miss our family and friends and as we face for the first time as a nation shortages of essential items, The Greatest Generation, is a great book to give us hope and remind us of where we have been.
You can’t write an article about books on suffering without including this one by Victor Frankl. It’s hard to imagine a place filled with more suffering than a Nazi concentration camp- yet even in this horrific environment Frankl seeks purpose and realizes that human’s deepest desire is to find meaning in life. With meaning, one can survive anything. As we suffer, rather than minimize our suffering, or numb ourselves by distraction look for the meaning in the suffering!
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. — Viktor Frankl
Full Disclosure here- I did not read this book. Honestly to take on this 700-page book sounds like a very practical way to increase your suffering. I would love to hear from anyone who has read it! The book is composed of letters written by political prisoner and historian Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. The letters chronicle his time in a Siberian Work Camp, a Gulag, between 1958 and 1968. These camps were similar to concentration camps. Starvation, disease, forced labor, and bitter cold were just part of the suffering Solzhenitsyn describes.
With a book title like this, you know there will be some suffering. Victor Hugo’s classic tale set during the French Revolution tells the story of the poverty and suffering of the people of France. The characters steal to eat, they are forced into prostitution to survive and care for their family, they chased by the police for years, and when they finally find love that too is taken. The book is full of injustice, death, loss, and sadness. However, it’s remarkable that even in this tragic tale of suffering there is light. Read this remarkable book and revel in the suffering of these people, their remarkable resilience, and their hope for tomorrow…
Frank McCourt’s autobiography describes a miserable childhood- not just that but a miserable Irish Catholic childhood. He details the poverty, an alcoholic father who eventually abandons the family, a mother so consumed by the death of her daughter she neglects the living children, disease, depression, death, and the persistent rain.
Yet- despite Frankies a bismil circumstance and upbringing the book has an overall sense of hopefulness. In times that seem grim- this hopefulness and optimism is something we all can learn from as we work to keep perspective on our own suffering.
Here’s a great book to read with older kids. The story contrasts two different lives, a life of comfort and a life of survival. This classic Jack London story is written from the perspective of Buck, a St. Bernard mix. Buck was born into dog luxury, a comfortable home in California where his needs were met and his only job was to please his master. He was stolen by the family gardener and shipped up to the Alaskan Frontier where sled dogs were in high demand due to the gold rush. Buck was abused and subjected to terrible conditions. He was confronted with his animal or wild nature. He was forced to fight to survive and to claim his place in the pack. Eventually, Buck fully embraces his wild nature and his life becomes a thing of legends.
Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
Ishmael Bean was a typical 12-year-old boy in Sierra Leone, he loved new shoes, to play with his friend and to write rap songs. His life changed when his village was attacked and burned by the rebel army during Sierra Leone’s civil war. He watched as his family and friends were killed and as his village burned. Ishmael and his brother spent the next year living in the jungle, fearing for their lives. They survived on stolen food. Eventually, they were captured by the National Army and forced to become soldiers themselves. The boys were brainwashed to believe their actions, killing and destroying villages, would avenge the deaths of their loved ones. Eventually, Ishmael and his fellow soldiers were brought to a UNICF rehabilitation center. Here the boys beat their drug addiction, confronted the loss of their family, and began the process of forgiveness.
This book is an important true story of modern-day suffering and redemption from the perspective of a teenager. And a reminder that as we suffer here in the United States, there are other nations, far more vulnerable, that are being hit with this in harder ways.
A Novel of the Vietnam War – Sometimes it takes years to process the horrific experiences in warfare and even longer to try and explain those experiences. Quote Cadence takes a look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of a 19-year-old young man who volunteered to serve his country and whose months in the Jungle altered his life forever.
Next time while you are waiting in a 30-minute line at Target, annoyed that your community playground is closed off or you are inconvenienced that you can’t get the right brand of rice, keep in mind some of the real suffering that has occurred. Hopefully, the above books are able to celebrate your historical perspective and continue to remind you to be grateful for the blessings that each of us has.
What other books should I have added to this list? What other books that you have read that can put this difficult time in perspective and help you focus on the positive rather than the negative.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. – Viktor Frankl