Books to survive a pandemic (and after)

Rev. Margaret Marcuson

August 5, 2021

Books have been wonderful companions through these isolating months. Here are some books I have found to be particularly helpful in the last uncertain year.

Anthony De Mello, “Awareness” (Image, 1990) I’ve read De Mello before, but this book was new to me. He was a Christian mystic, a Jesuit priest in India with a global reach. I keep turning back again and again to pages I’ve marked as I watch my own thoughts careen around this year. As a lifetime devotee of self-improvement, I’ve found his compassionate words about awareness and acceptance to be balm for the soul. “Stop being a dictator. Stop trying to push yourself somewhere. Then someday you will understand that simply by awareness you have already attained what you were pushing yourself toward.” (p. 95) 

Stephen Levine, “Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart” (Rodale, 2005). I lost my father (age 97) last fall and my beloved voice teacher of nearly 20 years a few months ago. I know there are countless losses so many have experienced through this time. Levine is a Buddhist teacher, and I’ve found his wise counsel can benefit Christian leaders, too. This book is a balm through a time of loss. Here’s one quote I keep coming back to: “When we start to convert the belly contracted in fear into the outflowing heart of service, when our frustration with the state of the world starts not to separate us into anxious little bundles but connect us into a community of compassion, how different the world we live in, and most certainly the world that lives within us, might be.” (p. 134)

Kathleen Smith, “Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxieties, and Finally Calm Down” (Hachette, 2019) A practical, down-to-earth and at times funny book about how to navigate relationships and the attendant anxieties, “Everything Isn’t Terrible” is aimed at young adults, but it’s helped me, too. The book is solidly based in Bowen Family Systems Theory but is not technical or theoretical. One of the pastors I coach used it in a book group for her congregation early in the pandemic. My favorite quote (of many): “People will tell you that if you’re not reactive in today’s world, you’re not paying attention. But does the world need more reactivity? Or does it need more people guided by their principles rather than the anxiety of the moment? Working on being a more mature person is not a hobby. It’s not a distraction. It is your responsibility as a human on this planet.” (p. 187)

Books have been wonderful companions through these isolating months. Here are some books I have found to be particularly helpful in the last uncertain year.

Anne Lamott, “Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage” (Riverhead, 2021). Alternately touching and humorous, Lamott reflects on the ups and downs of personal and public life. I loved reading about her observations on getting married for the first time in her sixties. My favorite quote: “It will take time. Time takes time. I hate this.” (p. 36). I get that!

I’m a big fiction reader, and I also found myself re-reading old favorites, including Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series. It’s made up of six novels about the Church of England from the 1930s through the 1960s. Starting with “Glittering Images” (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine, 1987), and moving through 5 more books, these novels include theology, spiritual practice, church politics, sex, and multigenerational family history. What more could you want? Hours of enjoyment.

A.J. Jacobs, “Thanks a Thousand” (Simon & Schuster, 2018). I’ve read and loved Jacobs’ other books, including “The Year of Living Biblically.” (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Here’s the description of this book: “The idea was deceptively simple: New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Short, funny, and moving, this book made me more grateful not only for coffee but also for clean, running water among many other gifts in my life.

Finally, I’m grateful for books—and for the people who write them, publish them, offer them to the public in libraries, bookstores and online, and recommend them to readers like me.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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