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The Best Nonfiction Books for Getting Through a Crisis

Uncertainty and fear are part of the human experience. Yet the wisdom gained through previous hardships can also offer us paths towards solace and comfort in trying times.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Apr 8 2020

As I write this in Seattle, I’m currently under a statewide shelter-in-place order. News agencies at all levels have shown my hometown turned to a ghost town, like so many others around the world. Seattle became an early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. For all the stillness that has resulted from social distancing, a kind of tension lingers in the eerily quiet air around here. Rather than serene, it has become surreal.

The reaction to such moments takes on many forms. Anxieties heighten. Nerves fray. And yet there have also been stories of resilience and hope and human dignity and grace. Moments like this have a way of distilling us, and it is not always easy to swallow the resulting spirit. Yet it often proves to be medicinal.

In the wake of hardship, many have written, sometimes to understand, sometimes to cope, sometimes to help others in the future. We looked through the Blinkist library for titles that offered advice and wisdom for weathering uncertainty.

Stitching Your Mind Back Together

Uncertainty often brings fear and feelings of powerlessness in its wake. Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart asks us to consider our underlying thinking. What are we really afraid of and why? Chödrön offers meditative tools derived from Buddhist teachings, so we can address our emotions in a way that does not ensnare us in them.

From Moment to Moment

We often fail to recognize the importance of our rituals until we cannot perform them. Social distancing measures have cancelled concerts, weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations and a myriad other social celebrations. Not to mention the daily rituals set by the wayside; the coffee before work, the return home. Maybe you’re forming new rituals now without realizing it. Sasha Sagan’s For Small Creatures Such as We looks at ritual and the way it connects us to each other and the world.

Take Some Time to Yourself

Solitude does not mean loneliness. Instead, think of time away from others as a way to connect more deeply with the innermost self. And this doesn’t mean binging on streaming services or keeping yourself busy all the time. Sometimes it means sitting quietly and listening to your own thoughts. Sara Maitland’s How to Be Alone explores the ways we can use solitude to better know ourselves and enjoy our own company.

Balm for the Broken Hearted

We have already seen a tremendous amount of loss in the midst of the current crisis. Loved ones, relationships, the rituals mentioned earlier. The grief attending these losses is a natural response. Psychologist Guy Winch, both in his book How to Fix a Broken Heart and his episode of Blinkist’s Simplify podcast, helps us understand how we can work with our own grieving process to heal after such hardships.

We Are All in This Together

Mungi Ngomane introduces us to a mindset that embraces virtues such as diversity, honesty, compassion, and respect in Everyday Ubuntu. Using her family’s experiences during apartheid in South Africa and afterward, Ngomane shows that the right course of action can feel unintuitive, even frightening perhaps, but leads to better results. The interconnectedness of our world makes a practice like ubuntu all the more essential.

A Feeling Deep Inside

We’re so often told about the harm of stress and anxiety. What good are they when all they seem to do is get in the way of our lives? Dr. Randolph Nesse (who also appeared on Simplify) writes about them in his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. What feel like behavioral quirks now were at one time pivotal to the survival of our species!

On One’s Own

Loneliness could well have been one of the bad feelings Nesse talked about. In these days of social distancing, the inability to spend time with loved ones and friends can leave us deflated. It is easy to think loneliness has been a universal of human existence, but Fay Bound Alberti reveals its origins to lie in the relatively recent past in A Biography of Loneliness.

Historical Insights

The COVID-19 pandemic will be analyzed for years after it has run its course. Historians will pore over what worked and what did not, what types of good and bad information people used to make decisions. Jennifer Wright’s Get Well Soon examines previous famous pandemics in ways that can shed some light on our current situation.

Natural Defenses

One of the things that makes transmissible diseases so frightening is that they are spread invisibly. Presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers can carry a pathogen around without knowing. Luckily, our bodies have an invisible system of guardians to combat these microscopic foes, and Dr. William E. Paul explores the functionality of our immune system in his book, Immunity.

Light Follows the RAIN

During crises, it is common for emotions such as fear, anxiety, and mistrust to emerge. This can come as a surprise to us and we may take it as a kind of failure. In her book, Radical Compassion, Tara Brach teaches the RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) mindfulness meditation and how it can be used to tame our negative emotions.

Are You Your Possessions or Yourself?

Erich Fromm, in To Have Or To Be?, asks what the consequences are for deriving our sense of self-worth from what we own rather than what we are. What he finds can help illuminate the source of some of the feelings of loss we experience in a time of crisis. From there, he suggests a mindset that may help to lessen the mental burden our possessions place upon us.

Embracing Inevitabilities

Crises like the current pandemic serve to remind people of their own mortality. In a society that focuses upon and elevates youth to an ideal, death is not something we often think about. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal confronts us with the inevitability of physical and mental decline and the ways we can improve the late stages of life through the courage to address it realistically and to treat the elderly with compassion rather than dismissal.

Forging Meaning

In the midst of drawn-out trying times, it is easy to numb oneself to the external world. However, by building meaning and purpose within these circumstances, we can emerge on the other side as better people. Viktor Frankl survived one of history’s greatest humanitarian disasters and offered his reflections on what best helped him and his fellow survivors endure. In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, we can find ways to navigate our own paths forward.

The day before I finished writing this, the governor extended my state’s shelter-in-place order by another month. As uncertain as the situation is, there are certain things we can do to keep hold of our sanity and our humanity throughout. And hopefully you can take away some inspiration from the books above.

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