Every year around this time, I offer a nod to the commencement season. This year I thought I’d go back to some previous posts to identify books that may be especially meaningful during this time of completion, transition, and starting anew:
Pictured above is a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater. The book examines topics such as authenticity, virtue, vocational identity and selection, living significantly, work-life balance, authority, individual choice, personal stories, and death. It’s a bit too weighted toward American and “Western Civ” authors to be called a multicultural reader, but it gathers an eclectic group of writers nonetheless.
My guess is that more undergraduate seminars have used this book than have adult education classes or reading groups. Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent choice for those in midlife and beyond who are thinking in big picture terms about their lives.
Allow me to especially recommend one of the selections: Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych (reprinted in full as the Epilogue) is especially powerful and wise.
Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly (2012) draws its title and inspiration from a 1910 speech that former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, titled “The Man in the Arena.” One particular passage from the speech has become rather famous as an inspirational call to living a courageous, engaged life:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Brown’s conceptualization of daring greatly draws us away from the kind of boyish, chest-thumping image that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s public persona. Rather, she associates vulnerability with daring greatly. According to Brown, only by being vulnerable to setback, rejection, disappointment, and failure can we reach these higher places in our work lives, personal lives, and other endeavors.
Charles D. Hayes is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life are hidden gems. Here’s the opening to his Preface from The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), my favorite among his wonderful books:
When thoughts of our own mortality begin to crop up with increasing frequency, it’s time to pause and contemplate our legacy. We’re reminded to ask ourselves what of value we intend to leave for posterity. After the tangibles of the estate are settled, what will our successors remember about us? Is there something we can do now that will generate a lasting, positive effect in the lives of our descendants?
Some of the most instructive and inspirational books are written by folks a generation (or two) ahead of us who graciously share their life lessons with their successors. Hayes writes especially for those in the “September” of their lives, but anyone can benefit from his wisdom.
One of the most personally influential books I’ve read is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1956). Frankl was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who lost almost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust. The first part of the book details his concentration camp experiences. The second part explains his theory of logotherapy. Frankl believed that life’s essence is about a search for meaning: “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Logotherapy is based upon these premises.
In 1991, the New York Times reported that, based on a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in [the United States].”
We usually associate graduation with celebration, and often rightly so, but it also can be a time of significant transition. To understand these processes, looking inward can help us to weigh options. On this note, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful. Here’s a brief passage:
People who have discounted or blocked out the inner callings from the future have cut themselves off from the very signals that really vital people use to stay on their paths of their own development. It is no wonder that people who have silenced those inner signs find meaningful careers difficult to launch and to maintain, or that when they encounter times of transition, they are so confused and distressed.
Overall, this is a wise and helpful book for those who want to get beyond quick advice and breezy self-help manuals. It’s especially helpful for folks who are transitioning during mid-life and beyond and who are eager to think deeply about how they want to create the rest of their lives. For those completing degree programs later in life, it may carry extra relevance.