As 2016 ends, I look back on a list of last year’s resolutions and laugh. The list included items like “Lose weight,” “Exercise more” and “Be an amazing partner.” And although I’ve failed in each of those categories except exercising more (barely, by the way), my 2017 list reads like I’ve lived the year in a different dimension entirely.
My 2017 resolutions are to be nicer to myself, learn more about those who are different from me and take mandatory vacations from social media. Last year’s resolutions were about making positive changes to increase my happiness, but this year, my resolutions are more about general maintenance and getting back to a place where I can like myself and understand the world around me.
The answer, for me, has always been simple: books.
More than talking heads on television and friends in heated conversations about politics and policy, I learn more by reading about specific subjects. After Election Day, I picked up all six of The New York Times books to help understand Donald Trump’s win. I’ve read two thus far-“Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land”-and both were eye-opening.
For my first column of 2017, I thought I might list some of the books that I imagine might help me keep my resolutions throughout the year. Here’s what I’ve put on my list so far.
David Whyte, “Consolations”
For a few years, I was deep into reading about Buddhism, particularly secular Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation. And although I’ve found myself wanting to get back in the habit of exploring spirituality, I also have a realistic attitude about my motivations-that being I’m far more interested in the studying of most subjects than I am about practicing the techniques associated with meditation/mindfulness, etc. I guess that’s just how my brain works. David Whyte is a philosopher and poet whose book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words” I’ve had on my bedside table for weeks. He takes simple words-“despair,” “grief,” “honesty,” etc.-and offers careful consideration of the power of each. What do these words really mean/imply, and how can we use them? Maria Popova from BrainPickings.org has a wonderful essay about the book here.
Matthieu Ricard, “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World”
If the goal is to “be nicer to myself,” a component of that extends to my relationship with others. 2016 offered plenty of motivation to distance myself from those who were different from me (politically, socially, etc.), but what if in 2017 I do the opposite? What if, as Matthieu Ricard suggests in his latest book, I decide to actually start giving a s*&t about others? Altruism is, simply, about allowing yourself to have concern for others. Simple, right? Not really. In a world that breeds contempt, actually forcing yourself to give a damn is far more difficult than you imagine. Case in point: “Altruism” is an 834-page book. So I suppose if reading it doesn’t help, you’ll at least have acquired a sizable weapon to use on those who are different from you. I’m joking, of course. Please don’t kill someone.
Eckhart Tolle, “A New Earth”
Yes, it was an Oprah Book Club selection. Yes, it is an overly simplistic introduction to mindfulness. And, yes, you’ll find it in the “new age” section of the bookstore. But Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” is a book I revisit at least once per year, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never taken the journey. Tolle’s thesis-that the world is on the precipice of a “great awakening” of consciousness-is a bit of a tough sell, but the nuggets of wisdom and simplifications of big ideas are where “A New Earth” blossoms. Something happens to my brain when I read Tolle-like a switch or a valve releasing. If everybody would take the time to read this book, the world would be a better place. I do not consider myself religious, but this book changed me. At least read some quotes.Do it for me.
Sherwin B. Nuland, “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter”
I first picked up “How We Die” in the year following my father’s death. After all the grieving, anger and all those other Kubler-Ross stages, I found myself wanting to remove the veil over death and, hopefully, some of the fear. Nuland’s book is clinical and raw. But it also helped me understand that death is as natural as anything else. And with a bit of planning and forethought, a person could ease into death with grace and dignity. 2016 was a morbid reality with a celebrity death in the headlines every day. Some of them were graceful-David Bowie and his message to fans-while others were much sadder: George Michael, Prince and Carrie Fisher. Maybe if we read more about death instead of running away, we might be able to understand and accept it. It’s worth a shot.
Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
At the end of the year, what I long for most is hope. After a year of death, stagnation, political turmoil, natural disasters, uncertainty and, despite everything, a ton of laughs and personal triumphs to add to the guilt, I’m left wanting a little hope. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is the most difficult and important book I’ve read in my adult life. He writes candidly about his experiences in Nazi death camps and how those experiences shaped his worldview. Frankl later created a form of psychology called logotherapy, which is essentially the motivation to search for meaning in your life. If you read one book from this list, make it “Man’s Search for Meaning.” If I could buy a copy for everyone I knew, I would. It’s that important.
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