Books Changed My Life

When I was 19 years old I worked at the Aurora (Illinois) Public Library. This was the late 1980’s, a time period in which this “rust belt” city had seen much better days. Just a block from the library there was a considerable homeless population living in a tent-city under a bridge. During the winter months, these folks would spend their days and evenings in the warmth of the library. This was allowed with only one rule – they could not sleep in the library.

DSC_0088My job, and it still amazes me that I was given this responsibility, was to walk around and wake anyone who was caught sleeping and escort them from the building. The rule was non-negotiable.

One night, in late December, I noticed a pregnant woman sleeping on the second floor, way back in the corner. I didn’t have the heart to wake her and chose to ignore her being there at all. Sometime later the librarian mentioned the woman and asked me to wake her up and escort her out. In that moment, I knew that I would not do this, yet I was too weak to simply tell the librarian no. So I nodded in submission then walked to the break room, got my coat and left the building. I quit (for the correct reasons but in a cowardly manner)!

That experience pierced the cocoon of my childhood, my innocence was officially gone. I cannot explain how or why, but I suddenly became acutely aware of all the problems in the world that I did not previously know existed.

AIDS, Crack. Poverty. Hunger. Iran-Contra. Mandela. Apartheid. The hole in the ozone. Styrofoam. CFC’s. Deforestation of the Amazon. Farm foreclosures. Industrial collapse. There was NO end to the issues facing humanity. I was overwhelmed and began to panic. It felt as if all of these crisis’ were converging at once. To me, it felt like the end of days.

At the same time, I became angry because no one around me 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 thought I would lose my mind,

Then a professor suggested that I read books as an antidote to my anxiety. I was not a reader at this time and thought it a silly use of ones time (especially if a movie existed with the same title!). His advice was that I read quality fiction and non-fiction, books that would nourish the soul and comfort the mind. Seek wisdom in the written words of those who have lived deeply and examined the human condition. Take the long view to gain perspective rather than wallowing in the muck of news reports and talking heads whose job it was to stir emotions not provide illumination.

I took his advice and began reading. I started with the bible. While not active religiously at the time, I had grown up in the church and the bible had a strong influence over me as a child, though I had never actually read it. So I did. While I found much wisdom and solace, there was one quote that struck be 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

These words 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 there be after) free of struggle, conflict and hardship. 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, the bubble bursts. We then look back to our childhood as a “simpler” time, believing life was “better back in the day.” It really wasn’t, we were just ignorant of real problems. We were protected from hardship. Part of becoming an adult is recognizing and accepting that life is difficult, suffering is an unavoidable reality of living and that being grown up requires confronting these issues and not hiding from them.

Many of us never reach an understanding of this truth. We spend our time longing for a time in the past that we believe was better, or for our youth (a time free of challenge) or a future on Mars when all our troubles have been solved through the miracle of science. No such time has or ever will exist. This is it.

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

I was still, however, upset about 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 by our daily lives – just trying to deal with what is in front of us – so there is little energy remaining to deal with the “big” problems. It was not so much evil or indifference, just the demands of life and the need/want to focus on what is in ones sphere of influence. I could not fault someone for wanting 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, the funny sound their car is making and why their child isn’t home at curfew. Life is often too complicated on the micro level to allow for attention being given to the macro. Understanding this allowed me to accept people where they are and not expect them to equal my passion on every issue. I gained empathy for the struggle each of us faces daily. These problems are big, life is difficult and most of us do the very best we can with each day. 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. I have no control over the levers of power. No influence at all 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.

While this is true, I realized that I do, in fact, have some influence. I shifted my attention to what I did have control over and this was empowering I looked at the micro (one of my peers struggling with issues of poverty) rather than the macro (poverty as a global crisis). If we each did this – tended to our sphere of influence – perhaps change could occur on the macro level from the ground up, rather than waiting for someone or something at the top to save us.

These are three of the hundreds of books I have read over the last 30 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 trained and developed. It is difficult in the beginning as the mind is unaccustomed to the need for focus and attention, it is used to 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 grow in your opinions. Reading is what helps me understand, explain and cope is a world that often feels too crazy and out of control to survive. It feeds and nourishes my mind and soul. Books have forever changed my life.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.