A personal history is powerful.
Some people’s stories are well told and they’ve risen above or conquered so much that just hearing their story is inspiring.
Some have broken out of a cycle of generational poverty. Some have faced mortality with uncommon courage.
Some know how to put beautiful words to the every day human experience.
These are the memoirs I picked.
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Rising above extreme circumstances:
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
A Christian family in Holland hides Jews from the Germans during World War II. Corrie Ten Boom’s incredible story of espionage, imprisonment and forgiveness.
The Ten Boom family takes their faith seriously. They believe the Jews are God’s Chosen People. They risk their lives to protect them.
They continue to trust God in spite of horrific circumstances and they see His hand at work.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
What would it be like to be convicted of a murder you didn’t commit and then spend 30 years on death row?
Amazingly, Anthony Ray Hinton is not an angry, bitter man.
It would be the logical reaction for an extreme injustice.
What’s it like for the men sitting on death row? How would you feel? What would you think? How do you make it every day?
This is an inside look. Incredibly, a hopeful look.
Overcoming the cycle of poverty
Gifted Hands by Ben Carson
Ben Carson and his brother grew up in a single parent home in Detroit.
Ben credits his mother for the impact on his life that resulted in all of them breaking out of the poverty culture.
She valued education, discipline, the importance of reading and making wise decisions in the use of her resources.
In turn, Ben came to see poverty as a temporary state. He could see the way out. He developed a vision for his life. He eventually attained some of life’s greatest successes as a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was gratuitous language. Sometimes language in a dialogue can prove a point, but there’s no good reason for it to be in the narrative.
That being said, I love the social analysis wrapped around a boot-strapping overcomer’s story. J.D. Vance emerged from an impoverished childhood to graduated from Harvard and become a successful lawyer.
It has some similarities to Ben Carson’s story in Gifted Hands.
I love the positive impact and stability the author’s grandparents brought to his life.
My heart breaks for the young people in this country, especially for the homes that so many grow up in–for the poverty–not of money so much as love, stability, education and faith.
One thing that struck me is that the author wasn’t able to find much help in counseling, but research, learning and understanding about himself and his formative years brought a measure of peace.
Uncommon courage in the face of mortality
The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts
Kara’s bravery in the face of her own mortality is inspiring.
It’s hard for young children to lose their mother to cancer. It feels unjust. But, Kara’s acceptance of God’s will for her life showed the world what it means to believe that God is good, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
She faced the reality that her marriage wasn’t eternal.
I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with God’s sovereignty.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This memior was written by a man diagnosed with cancer. That’s the kind of news that changes your perspective in life.
Kalanith writes in a clear, concise style. What makes the book extraordinary is the author wrestles with the meaning of life even before he’s diagnosed with cancer. It gives the reader pause in the very best ways.
Here’s my takeaway: we make plans for our lives based on how long we think we have left to live. We make different decisions when we think we’re going to live 40 years more or 10 or 1.
Also: at the end of life, our close relationships are what matter most. But, running a close second is a life dedicated to meaningful work and making an impact on our world in some way. I’ve believed for a long time that having meaningful work was a critical element for the human psyche, but I’ve never seen it so clearly before, especially in light of the importance of close relationships at the end of life.
I also enjoyed Kalanitrh’s stories of his experiences in medical school. Interesting to see the behind the scenes snapshots of a surgeon in training.
Beautiful words to express the human experience
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Blue Like Jazz is reminiscent of an Anne Lamott memoir. They’re both off the charts in honesty, transparency and authenticity. We identify with those inner insecurities that we can’t even admit to ourselves, much less to others, committing them to black and white and hurling them to the world.
I’ve read Donald Miller’s memoir several times. I have also read Scary Close, which is somewhat of a sequel, but it doesn’t have the same punch as Blue Like Jazz. Growing up fatherless is an underlying theme of Blue Like Jazz. By the time Scary Close was written, Miller has resolved many of his emotional issues and experienced a lot of healing. So, it’s not driven by the same pain.
I believe writing in itself is therapeutic. As is sharing your story. I heard Miller recently talk about the desire people have to be heard and seen and known. He’s been there, done that and now has no more need to be seen and heard and known. He’s heading a successful company now called StoryBrand that helps businesses tell their story .
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
One of my all-time favorites that I re-visit periodically. Written sixty years ago, this book is truly timeless.
Listen: “What a circus act we women perform everyday of our lives.” Really? 1955?
“how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life, how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center: how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel”
I love her reflections.
In a class by itself
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi
This is the raw, treacherous journey that Nabeel Qureshi took to find faith in Jesus. The sacrifices he made. The intellectual and emotional and relational barriers that kept him from finding faith in Jesus. And the story of overcoming those barriers.
Why do we need to know Nabeel’s story?
Because no man is an island. His pain is our pain. His victory is our victory. His story is our story.
There are millions of devout Muslims on the planet. If we understand Nabeel’s story, we come closer to understanding them.
There exists a great chasm of beliefs between us, but we share the same humanity. Our desires and dreams are common to the human experience.
To understand the Muslim mindset opens the door to greater compassion, to a better chance of building bridges to individuals who are seeking.
Statistics are one thing.
One person’s story is something else altogether. What difference can one person’s story make?
I can be inspired by their story. I can travel the road with them and return to my own life and take the courage with me. This is the power of story.
We are faced with the same choices Nabeel Qureshi faced. Are we going to accept what we were taught growing up? Or are we going to search for something else?
We have no say about the situation we were born into. But the time comes when we accept or reject the life we were given. Do we perpetuate the values, attitudes and beliefs we were given or turn from it to something else?
These are the questions that individuals from every devout family faces. These are the issues that we wrestle with. These are the answers that we must find. This is the peace that we must come to.
It might be a life long journey. It might takes years to find that peace. Our foundational beliefs might be shaken to the core.
But, we must search. We must know if the values, attitudes and beliefs that we were handed without our knowledge or consent are truly ours. Every person must choose.
And that is why Nabeel’s journey is everyone’s. Coming of age has nothing on coming to faith.
We need to struggle deeply with these critical issues. We need to come to peace.
Irregardless of the belief system we choose, the struggle is universal. It’s the dragon we all must fight.
What memoirs would you add to this list?
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