Losing yourself in the pages of a riveting novel or memoir is a legitimate form of therapy. Even better is coming away from the characters and the story with a renewed purpose and sense of hope.
John Green, one of my favorite authors, said “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.” I think that’s true especially for people who struggle with depression and anxiety or some other chronic illness that is stigmatized in our culture. Between the covers of a book, we find a new world that shines some light on our reality.
Here are a few inspiring books that will “help you understand and help you feel understood.”
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
On his 83rdbirthday, Eddie dies in an accident at a seaside amusement park while trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. He wakes up in heaven, which is not the lush destination that he expected. Instead, it’s a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people, some strangers and some people you know.
They teach Eddie about the interconnection of all lives — how our stories overlap — and that small sacrifices and acts of kindness impact people more than we know, that the meaning of life is found in our small gestures of love each day.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Hailed as a modern classic, this book tells the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who embarks on a journey in search of a worldly treasure and to realize his “personal legend.” What I appreciated most about the story was the way Santiago’s setbacks and disappointments made sense in the end — they were all part of a beautiful tapestry that you couldn’t see until the journey was over.
In a blog for the Huffington Post, Thai Nguyen lists 10 Powerful Life Lessons from The Alchemist. Among them are:
- Fear is a bigger obstacle than the obstacle itself
- What is “true” will always endure
- Embrace the present
- Be unrealistic (ignore the impossible)
- Keep getting back up
- Focus on your journey
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Like The Kite Runner, this book is not an easy read. Parts of it are heartbreaking and haunting. However, all the acts of self-sacrifice and love between Mariam and Laila, two women brought together by war and loss, to preserve their family are profoundly moving.
Hosseini is a masterful storyteller who communicates a theme of hope on each page, even in the midst of dire and unforgiving circumstances. The story is full of teachable moments about how to endure difficulty with gentleness, suffering with grace, and how even the worst tragedies can have redemptive endings.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The title of this book is inspired by Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, in which the nobleman Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” It is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with thyroid cancer who is staying alive thanks to an experimental drug. Her parents insist she attends a support group, where she meets 18-year-old Augustus Waters, a former basketball play whose Osteosarcoma caused him to lose his right leg.
**Spoiler alert** They fall in love. Augustus takes Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author, who is a major disappointment. Then Augustus dies. Not your typical love story. Augustus’ final message to Hazel is that getting hurt in this world is inevitable, but we get to choose who we allow to hurt us, and that he is happy with his choice.
For anyone whose days are consumed with illness and how to cope, this book provides a refreshing message that love and hope can be found in the least expected places, and that there is much beauty in the present moment.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I read this short, little book in French class when I was a junior in high school and it made a tremendous impact on me. A literary classic, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language and one of the most loved stories in all languages. Its universal message transcends all cultures, presenting a simple wisdom every human being can relate to.
Published more the 75 years ago, this spiritual parable or moral allegory about a small boy who leaves his planet to visit Earth contains many powerful lines, such as:
- “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
- “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
- “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
- “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
- “It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
A fable about a seagull learning to fly, this novella is packed full of life lessons and insights that can apply to a variety of difficulties and challenges: about perfectionism and the tendency to lose ourselves in obsessions and goals; about conflict and forgiveness; and about the freedom that is found in being yourself. The pages take you on a journey of self-inquiry and self-awareness, guiding you toward some critical truths.
The wise seagull Chiang tells Jonathan that the secret to move instantaneously and to go anywhere in the universe is to “begin by knowing that you already have arrived.” It’s cognitive behavioral therapy and spiritual direction in literary form.