Books Changed My Life

pexels-photo-2When I was 19 years old I worked at the Aurora Public Library. This was the late 1980’s, there was a huge homeless population at that time and they lived a large tent-city under a bridge just a block from the library. During the winter months, they would spend the day in the warmth of the library, which was allowed as long as they didn’t sleep.

My job, and it still seems odd that I would have had this responsibility, was to walk around and wake people up who were caught sleeping and escort them out of the building. This rule was non-negotiable.

One night, in late December, I noticed a pregnant woman sleeping on the second floor. I didn’t have the heart to wake her up and chose to ignore her being there at all. Some time later, the librarian mentioned the woman and asked me to wake her and escort her out. I knew I was not going to do that, but also know I would not tell the librarian no. So I nodded my head, walked away,got my coat from the break room and left the building. I quit!

That experience pierced the cocoon of my childhood, my innocence was gone. I cannot explain how or why, but I suddenly became acutely aware of problems I didn’t know existed.

Aids. Crack. Poverty. Hunger. Iran-Contra. Hole in the ozone. Deforestation of the Amazon. Farm foreclosures. Industrial collapse.

There was no end to the issues facing humanity.

I was overwhelmed and began to panic with the sense that these crisis were converging all at once, as if it were the end of days.

I was angry because no one seemed to care – stupid TV thrived as civilization raced to its doom.

I felt powerless to do anything. The problems were too big to understand, stop or change.

I read everything I could find in an attempt to understand and try to fix what ailed us. Then a professor gave me some advice, he said: “What you are reading is part of the problem. The news is like junk food, regardless of how much you take in, it will never satisfy your need to understand, nourish your soul or comfort your mind or provide a solution. You should read books instead. Find wisdom in the words of people who have lived deeply and examined the human condition. Books will provide a perspective that you are lacking.”

I took his advice and began reading. I started with the bible. I am not huge on religion, but did grow up in the church and the bible had a strong influence over my values as a child, though I had never actually read it. So I did. While I found much value, there was one quote the struck me deeply at that time.

“What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Whoa! As I reflected on these words, they profoundly changed how I felt about the problems of the day. They helped me realize that these problems were just that – the problems of THE day. This day. I realized that humanity is a succession of sunrises and sunsets. There was never a time before (nor will be after) that was free of struggle, conflict and hardships. Every generation faces THEIR problems, but there are always problems.

Equally, most of us are unaware of these problems as children. We live in worlds consumed by sports, friends and play. At some point, this bubble bursts for us all. We then look back to our childhood as a simple time; “life was better back in the day…” It really wasn’t, we were just ignorant of the real problems. We were protected from hardship, because the psyche of a child cannot understand or process such challenges. Part of becoming an adult is accepting that life is difficult, suffering is an unavoidable reality of living, and adulthood requires confronting these challenges and not hiding from them.

Many of us never get this truth. We spend our time longing for a time in the past that we believe was better, or for our youth (which was free of challenge) or for a future on Mars that will have solved all human foibles. No such time has or will ever exist. This is it.

So, I realized it was not the end days, which allowed me to detach from my sense of panic, to accept what I could and couldn’t control and relax in the knowledge that life will go on. To not be overwhelmed, but to maintain perspective in knowing that problems should be addressed but do not necessarily mean doom.

I was still angry at the seeming indifference of my peers.While reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving,  I came across the following quote:

“The only way to get Americans to notice anything is to tax them, draft them or kill them.”

I underlined that and spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the words. It helped me realize that this was not just Americans, but all of us. We are often overwhelmed with our own daily lives – trying to deal with what is in front of us – so there is little energy left to solve problems greater than our ability to influence. It is not evil or indifference. Therefore, I cannot really be angry with those who want to watch Monday Night Football instead of reading an article about acid rain. They can’t solve acid rain, they are worried about the rent, their car breaking down and why their child isn’t home after curfew. Life is often too complicated on the micro level to even give consideration to the macro. Understanding this allowed my to accept people where they are and not expect them to equal my passion. I gained empathy for the struggle each of us faces daily. These problems are big, life is difficult, we do the best we can. I let the anger go.

Now I had to address my feelings of powerlessness. While reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence, I read this sentence :

“The world is a raving idiot, and no man can kill it: though I’ll do my best. But you’re right. We must rescue ourselves as best we can.”

We must rescue ourselves as best we can. That stuck with me as I reflected on these words. I have no control over the levers of power. No influence over these problems or the individuals in government charged with addressing them. I am one man, one quiet voice in an ocean of others crying about injustice and misery. But I do have influence. I began to understand that my focus should be on what I could control and not what was beyond me. This subtle shift in my thinking was empowering. It allowed me to surrender the BIG problems and pay attention to the individuals in my life who need help. (The micro (one student struggling with poverty) over the macro (POVERTY as a global crisis). If we each did this – tended to our sphere of influence – perhaps macro change could occur from the ground up, rather than waiting for the top to save us.

So, these are three of the hundreds of books I have read over the past 25 years. I continue to seek the wisdom of individuals who have lived fully and put it to words for our benefit. If you are not a reader – you should become one. It is intimidating at first – the reading mind is one that has to be developed and trained. It is difficult at first because the mind has often become lazy, it is used to constant visual stimulation and a steady influx of predigested and easily assimilated ideas. Books offer complexity. Varied opinions and viewpoints intricately laid out to challenge your existing beliefs and push you to evolve and grow in your opinions.

I was not a reader before this experience. That has forever changed. Reading is what helps me understand, explain and cope in a world that often feels too crazy to survive. It nourishes and feeds my mind and soul. If you are not a reader, start small, be consistent and allow your mind to build the muscles it needs to read well – don’t quit, you’ll get there.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.

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