Habits, Purpose, and a Life Well-Lived

Reflections on Summer Reading

I hope you had a safe and fun-filled Labor Day! I enjoyed the beautiful weather at Longwood Gardens enjoying the sunshine, flowers, and fauna.

With the unofficial close to summer, it’s time to write about my favorite summer reads! I have fallen behind on my monthly reading round-up blog posts —forgive me readers! (all 5 of you!) You can check out my April and May highlights, and below I’ll wrap-up my summer favorites in one post. Rather than review each of these books separately, I want to pull together the threads within them. I hope it’s helpful and edifying!


Summer Favorites:

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


“Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.”

I found Atomic Habits to be extremely practical and helpful with ideas and strategies for becoming a creature of good habits. Clear’s thesis is that tiny, consistent—“atomic-size”—habits aggregate to big life changes. His four laws of behavior change are a helpful framework to form healthy habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (these can be inverted for breaking bad habits).

One concept I particularly liked was the relationship between habits and identity. Clear describes it simply: “Your habits shape your identity.” An example would be if one assumes the identity of a healthy person, it is easier to make healthy choices; of course, coupled with various other practices to establish healthy eating and exercising habits. But the way we think about ourselves does have a significant role in the way we act and order our lives.

Aside from reading the book, Clear provides many helpful resources on his website, and I’ve also been enjoying his twice weekly email newsletter. My critique comes from what I felt was missing. Habits are absolutely important. Healthy eating, living, exercising, reading, writing, etc. I for one, have been trying to increase and improve my writing this year and thinking through setting myself up for success with good habits is something important to me. But as helpful as Clear’s material is, it also felt a bit robotic and formulaic. Is there more to life than good habits?

I think yes.

A life of good habits with a lack of purpose is a life devoid of meaning.

Which is why I loved and highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

Smith cuts to the core of the human heart, writing that our actions, behaviors, or “habits” flow from our longings and desires. We were made to worship and desire God, but our heart’s desires become disordered because of sin. Smith draws on the words of early Church fathers to describe this:

“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine opens with a design claim, a conviction about what human beings are made for. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it recognizes that human beings are made by and for the Creator who is known in Jesus Christ. In other words, to be truly and fully human, we need to “find” ourselves in relationship to the One who made us and for whom we are made. The gospel is the way we learn to be human. As Irenaeus once put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

To put it simply, I am what I love. My habits – my lifestyle – flow from what I long for and love. Smith later invokes the Church reformers to illustrate this “worship”:

To say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate. 

Smith goes on to expose the idols of our age within secular culture and the church. And he poignantly shows how the sacramental gifts of the church should rightly form us.

“To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship…Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship.” 

This book was convicting, but also beautiful and freeing. The habit-forming gifts of the church are a special grace from the Lord to mold and shape our hearts, so that we can truly become the creatures with a purpose we were meant to be.

>>>p.s. I wrote an article this summer on our divine purpose within the creation mandate…I hope you find it edifying if you care to read!

In thinking about one’s habits and purpose in life, one can’t help but reflect upon what life might look like when we come to the end of our time here on earth. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, does just that. I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for a while, and found it to be an enjoyable and leisurely read this summer. 

Gilead records the stream-of-consciousness journal entries of a country preacher in his last days. Reverend John Ames writes to his young son about a myriad of topics, from family history, amusing life anecdotes, and especially his memories as a pastor.

Robinson’s writing is both conversational and lyrical. One of my favorite examples:

The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point. It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this. 

His letters reflect on the intricacies of the human soul, the purpose of life, and his wrestling with deep theological questions. One thing shines through: he loved and served his family, his wife, his son, his parishioners, and his town, well.

What Gilead lacks in plot, it makes up for in droves with beautiful language, character study, and thoughtfulness. It is a reflection of a life well lived, and the desire to pass on a legacy to the next generation. It stood in stark contrast to me with Atomic Habits. As valuable as those psychological insights are, habits without purpose, and a purpose disconnected from the Creator, is meaningless. 

I highly recommend all of these titles! And perhaps I will get back into the “habit” of a monthly review, rather than quarterly. Enjoy and may your September be filled with good books and good habits 😊.


May Reading 📖 Recommendations

May was a month of hits and misses with the books I read. Several of the novels I read disappointed, and the length of my historical nonfiction pick, didn’t leave time for many other options. Yet, the three I wrote about below were all fantastic reads in the month of May!

Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode by Aundi Kolber
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy

Aundi Kolber’s Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy is a breath of fresh of air, especially during a collective season of stress and uncertainty.

Kolber posits that a life of connection and joy can be found when we “approach life with more self-compassion,” just as Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that we may see ourselves as God does: “as someone with infinite value who was created to be loved.” When we live with that truth as our center, we are able to face challenges and own our own story, which in turn enables us to have more compassion and empathy for others.

Along with this theological backdrop, the foundation of the “try softer” approach is found in the science of neurobiology – exactly how God created humans: “when we understand the physiology of our bodies, we can be empowered to try softer with ourselves.” Kolber explains brain and body physiology in a way that brings a great deal of light to how our body handles, processes, and stores anxiety and trauma. She also explains attachment theory, boundaries, and emotional tolerances, all with helpful practices to move through the challenges we face in these areas.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a more compassionate approach to life and our human bodies, rooted in Scripture and brain science. It is a gentle reminder that the way God created the human person and intended for us to be in relationships with one another, is a beautiful thing.

That’s not often the reality, as trauma and brokenness mar us, but there is a way of living that can lead us back into the place of belovedness.

“During our hardest, scariest times—whether our bodies feel stressed and jumpy or sluggish and slow—God is there to reassure us that we are not defined by our best days of our worst days. We are his beloved.”


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

I’ve enjoyed several of Eri kLarson’s books and this highly anticipated January release was no different. Larson brilliantly blends journal entries and letter correspondence with his historical account of the first year of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of England during World War II, May 1940 – May 1941. This approach personalizes the central characters—historical figures who quite literally impacted world history, or orbited around those who did—which has the effect of making them more extraordinary and yet more accessible.

I came away from The Splendid and the Vile with a profound sense of admiration for Churchill and his leadership and courage during a dark time in Europe, and yet with a healthy sense of his humanity, such as his irritableness, penchant for fine cigars, and his quirk of wandering 10 Downing Street in just a dressing robe (or less, as told in a humorous anecdote of an encounter with President Roosevelt later in 1941!).

The book recounts the battles in the air between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, and the death and destruction that ensued. I’d been familiar with some of the stories of the London bombings, through literature and history lessons, but this book provided a stark look at the devastation the Nazis inflicted on London from the air, and the pervasive sense of fear they wrought.

“The persistence of the roads and the increasing destruction also had a darker effect. Wrote novelist Rose Macaulay, on Monday September 23: ‘I am getting a burying phobia, result of having seen so many houses and blocks of flats reduced to piles of ruins from which people can’t be extracted in time to live…Harold Nicolson had a similar fear, which he confided to his diary the next day. ‘What I dread,’ he wrote, is being buried under huge piles of masonry and hearing the water drip slowly, smelling the gas creeping towards me and hearing the faint cries of colleagues condemned to a slow and ungainly death.’ Many Londoners began complaining of gastrointestinal distress, a condition called ‘Siren Stomach.’”

The Splendid and the Vile helps one to understand what the constant threat of bombing, along with the imminent fear of invasion, did to the British psyche during World War II. It was a fearful time, and part of Churchill’s genius was his ability to empathize with the suffering—he himself was often at danger during the bombings—along with his oratorical gift to bolster the courage and perseverance through. Just one example of many is a February 1941 address: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither this sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.”

Of course the history of World War II is vast. The Splendid and the Vile provides a singular look at the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air and a critical front in the war, as well as a personal portrait of one of the 20th century’s great leaders.

“In the end, London endured, albeit with grave injuries. Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.”


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I was expecting more of a lighthearted read in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but what I found was a novel of much depth and insight into human relationships.

Eleanor, at first a seemingly typical albeit a bit eccentric millennial, lives alone and has little social interaction beyond her 9-5 job. Her friendship with Raymond, a “slovenly” colleague from IT, drives the story, as Eleanor slowly opens up to a world of social connection, and with that, the ability to face the past that haunts her and holds her back.

This ended up being a very timely book to read during the pandemic and quarantine, as we have all been suffering from social isolation. It illustrated how checking in on people we care about can quite literally be life-saving. This time has also revealed the plague of loneliness and the dreadful effects of trauma and lack of social connections. As Eleanor describes it:

These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Yet Eleanor Oliphant provides hope, as Eleanor allows friendship to seep into her. “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

I actually listened to this through Audible, which I found highly enjoyable. The reader was very talented in bringing life to Eleanor and all of the characters, and since the setting is Scotland, the accents were very entertaining! Overall, I’d throughly recommend this book!


April Reading 📚 Recs

How is it that a third of this year is already gone? 2020 has been one “for the books.” While its been very hard – for all of us – one thing I have enjoyed during this strange season is more time to read! My piles of books (and Kindle) are enjoying the extra attention, I think!

My goal is to make a monthly practice of sharing my three favorite books that I’ve read each month. Why? I enjoy writing about reading, I want to spread the joy of books with others, and I hope this will start a conversation and to get recommendations in return! Each month, I’ll choose a piece of fiction, a faith-based/theological work, and something from the category of psychology/sociology/history.

Without further ado, here are April’s picks!

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel lived up to all my expectations. It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale set in Europe during World War II that follows a young, blind, French girl named Marie-Laure who is evacuated with her father from Paris to Saint Malo along the French coast in June 1940. Her story is intertwined with a German orphan, Werner, who is sent to a special school because of his intellectual aptitude, and is ultimately drafted by the Nazi’s at age 16 for his electrical skills.

Doerr’s writing style is captivating and the reader can’t help but come to know and love the characters he has crafted. The vulnerable and sweet Marie-Laure. The eccentric, PTSD-suffering great-uncle Etienne. The maternal, precocious Jutta. And her brother, Werner, a sensitive, thoughtful boy, a dreamer, who “sees what other people don’t,” whose “soul glowed with some fundamental kindness,” caught up in a war he wants nothing to do with.

Of course this is a work of fiction, but one thing that struck me with this story, is thinking about all those caught up in World War II, or really any war, and the life-altering direction that ensues. Along with the death toll and the geopolitical consequences, there are the individual hopes and dreams dashed because of war. Once Marie-Laure and Werner meet in 1944 while Saint Malo is under siege, (sorry, no further spoilers beyond that!), Werner reflects on what life could be like were the war to go away:

Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? … He would walk anywhere to make it happen, near anything; in a year or three years or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they meant now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant and order a simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share.”

But it’s not just the challenges of war that these characters face. Marie-Laure is born blind. During the siege and her rescue, Werner remarks on her bravery. She replies:

“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Whether it is war, a pandemic, or a personal trial, we are all thrust into circumstances that are beyond our control. Our lives take an irreversible direction, and all we can do is adapt; to choose to keep on fighting and living. It may not seem brave, as Marie-Laure demurs, but it is – moving forward in disappointment and suffering is a quiet courage. And we are all called to it one day, one way or another.


Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

“What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?”

This is the fundamental question posed by Tish Harrison Warren in her thought-provoking book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. She relates our every day practices, such as making the bed, losing our keys, answering email, drinking tea, and sleeping to the life-giving liturgical practices of the church. She challenges the reader to allow God to work in and redeem every moment, especially the ordinary ones.

I really liked her chapter on the Sabbath and the importance of rest, particularly sleeping. At a stressful time when good sleep practices are even more important, I was challenged by her reflections to give my sleep up to God as an act of obedience:

“We learn to rest by practice, by routine, over time. This is true of our bodies, our minds, and our souls, which are always intertwined. About one third of our lives are spent in sleep. Through these collective years of rest, God is at work in us and in the world, redeeming, healing, and giving grace. Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.”


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

This was a well-researched and worthwhile read. Cain provides a wealth of research and social commentary, critiquing the way our society – particularly American culture – overvalues the “extrovert ideal” and how much of our educational and workplace settings are organized around extroversion; when 1/3 to 1/2 of the population are introverts.

I’ve long been aware of my own introversion, but Cain’s book gave new validity to my experience as a child, teenager, and adult. Furthermore, as an introvert, who can adapt into extroversion as needed, I found a lot of practical advice in this book – for both social life and work life. But her research was also very fascinating on the broader cultural implications for fostering flourishing for every person – no matter their temperament. I think it is a valuable read for extroverts as well, particularly if you are a leader, manager, teacher, or parent, to help understand the introverts you are shepherding.

My thoughts on Cain’s work in light of COVID and current events is the simple reflection that ALL humans NEED human connection. There are many broad brushstrokes that apply to the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, but each individual is also unique in what that looks like exactly. Understanding ourselves is key, and that can then help us reach a higher level of understanding of each other.

Her concluding chapter has some great insight, that’s geared towards introverts, but can apply to anyone:

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers—of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity—to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it.”


Well, bravo if you made it here to the end! This went longer than anticipated but there was too much to say about these excellent books – hence them being my favorite reads in April!

If you have any feedback – or recommendations for May – drop a comment below! 👇🏽

Favorite Books of 2019

I fell behind in my reading this year; only 24 books compared to 2018’s 42! I suppose starting grad school accounted for the slow down!

Nevertheless, I finished some good ones this year. Here a a few of my favorites and quotes!

Fiction (plus based on true stories):

Beartown by Frederick Bachman – Like A Man Called Ove, very real characters draw you into this story. A failing industrial town is held together by hockey, and nearly ripped apart by an assault and tragedy.

We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter – a fictionalized account of the true story of one Polish Jewish family that survived the Nazis. Through perseverance, faith, and a devotion to family, they survived atrocities and horrors that I could never dream of.

The Tatooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – another fictionalized account of a true story from World War II. The horrors of Auschwitz are all too real in this story, and yet the ability of many of the prisoners to retain their humanity despite the circumstances, is truly inspiring. In this story, love wins.

(I’m currently in the midst of two of my favorites for the year but won’t finish them before midnight – you’ll have to wait a year to find out!)

Non-fiction:

Anatomy of the Soul by Dr. Curt Thompson – I’m so grateful for the writings of Dr. Thompson. His insight into the human soul and how God has wired us as humans has been eye-opening and soul-enlarging for me.

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Jerry Sittser – this is a book I had to take my time through, the entire year in fact. It is heavy and a lot to take in and it is one of the best I’ve read. The human condition is filled with loss, and Sittser knows it well – losing his mother, wife, and one young daughter instantly in a tragic car crash. Reading his reflections on loss, and how God works in us and through these times, was like sitting down with an old friend, and being known and understood. His guidance on facing our pain and darkness is loving and inspiring.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter ScarzerroI loved this book and the lessons within on integrating our emotions with our spirituality. It’s truly beautiful to understand how God has created us as humans; when we understand how important every aspect of ourselves is, we can grow.

Politics and Prudence by Clark Forsythe – This was a realistic and yet hopeful reminder of the value of perseverance and prudence in policy and politics.

A new year lies ahead, with stacks of books surrounding me. I can’t wait to dive in!

We may be entering the futuristic year of 2020, but may we all rediscover the old-fashioned blessing and joy of a printed book.

Favorite Books of 2018

2018 was a record reading year for me – I finished 42 books! There are many reasons for that, but I also have to give credit to my Kindle. I’m two years in to life with a Kindle, and as a former skeptic I have to admit it has helped me increase my reading.

I had a number of favorites this year, and a few I got through just to finish! I hope you find something below to inspire you! And I will always take recommendations (or arguments for why I am wrong!).

Favorites:

A Tangled Mercy

A random Amazon Unlimited find that was a delightful surprise! The history buff in me loved the historical mystery aspect, and going back in time to the characters ancestors, though painful at times seeing the devastation of society with an economy centered around slavery, was very interesting. Great characters as well with a redemptive conclusion.

Truly, Madly, Guilty

I got on a Lynne Moriarty kick this year; this was my first and favorite of hers. The suspense of the “great event the story centers around but you don’t learn the details till the end” was fascinating. The characters were so real and endearing in their own quirky ways.

How to Walk Away

Loved this debut book by newcomer author Katherine Center. I literally couldn’t put it down and finished it in one day. I don’t want to give it away but sometimes it’s nice to have a good, and “real” read that still makes you feel satisfied and inspired at the end. Great characters with interesting conversations and reflections on life; don’t let the plane crash at the beginning scare you away! Definitely a good beach or ski lodge read, but with substance.

The Great Alone

I discovered why this book is so popular and I had to wait for weeks for the library e-book to become available for Kindle – I couldn’t put it down. An epic coming of age tale set in the pioneering world of a remote Alaskan village in the 1970s, I really enjoyed the robust characters and being taken to a world I know little about.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Absolutely fascinating true story from the Italian front in World War II, which I, and most people, know little about. Listening to on Audible, the story of Nino Pinello came alive, with his daring missions to help Jewish families escape danger, as well as his undercover spy. It is a beautiful story of a young man coming of age during a traumatic time in world history, filled with courage, love, and heartbreak.

A Man Called Ove

I’d also particularly recommend listening to this one, as the curmudgeonly yet faithful Ove comes alive through Audible. It is a thoughtful and creative look at aging, community, and the value of life. EVERYONE matters.

Just a little reading in a chapel on a hillside in Cinque Terre, Italy:

Least Favorites:

How Should a Person Be

If this is what a popular millennial author/book is supposed to be, no thanks. I almost stopped reading at times…very meandering, and a frustrating and foul main character.

Annihilation

This was popular on the charts, but I just didn’t quite get it, and seemed to miss the explanation. I enjoy dystopian lit, but this just didn’t make sense to me and was a bit boring.

Artemis

This was the first Andy Weir novel I had read, and friends and family in science careers recommended to me. I enjoyed the movie take on The Martian, but I struggled getting through this…perhaps you have to be really into science? The technical details were a bit much/boring for me, and I found the main character to just be annoying and hard to root for.

Gone Girl

I’m a few years behind on this one, but I felt angry at the end of Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster. Yes it was a page turner…I don’t want to give too much away, but the character development was too hard to follow and deceptive for me to understand the story’s arc and the characters’ motives.

Hunt for a Red October

I of course love this classic movie (who doesn’t?) and I wanted to read the book prior to the new Jack Ryan Amazon Prime series. It was certainly interesting at some points, but overall, the technical details slowed me down so I could never quite get into the flow of this. I didn’t feel like I could quite get to know the characters; although the Cold War history and the psychology beyond the Soviet dissidents was interesting.

Classics:

With 2018 being the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I wanted to read a few books about the Great War. These were heartbreaking and moving. 100 years ago and yet people, war, tragedy, and trauma – it’s still the same.

  • Farewell to Arms
  • All Quiet on the Western Front

Self-Help/Educational:

Perhaps I will write more about these later! The latter two on the Enneagram – wish I had discovered a long time ago! Highly recommend. You might hate it, but you might love it.

  • Power of Habit
  • Road Back to You
  • The Sacred Enneagram