Books for Trying Times

Alison Isaac
4 min readJun 6, 2020


Photo by Daria Nepriakhi

Some years ago, I worked with someone I knew from our days at university together. Truthfully, I didn’t know him very well when he joined the team, but by the time I left, I considered him to be a close friend.

Our friendship developed over a series of lunches. We’d eat together, do a lot of talking, and call these sessions Magic Lunches. They were oftentimes like an intense self-development seminar packed into an hour.

The greatest lesson I learned during those Magic Lunches was to water my mind garden. You know how we have that saying about the grass being greener, and how in response, some people will say, “it’s green where you water it?” My self-development-guru guy friend helped me to reflect on those sayings and think about what I could do in a practical sense, to feel better when life felt hard.

I’m writing this at the end of May 2020, so you know what we’ve been through globally. Some of us have felt mostly fine during these odd times, but others have really struggled. Some people are stressing over whether or not they’ll be able to fulfill the commitments they’ve made for this year (family reunions, BFF getaways, weddings), others are judging themselves for not doing enough during confinement (find a new job, learn Arabic, write a book). Add George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police and the resulting anger, and well, it’s been a rough year.

Magic lunches taught me to think of my mind as my garden and to water it. Over the past few months I’ve been intentional with where I put my attention, so naturally, I’ve been drawn to books with hopeful messages, and books that remind me that feeling “bad” is part of the human experience. These are some of the books that have helped me through mess.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl Frankl’s premise in writing and publishing this book is straightforward, and he states it early on: it’s that we can find meaning and maintain our integrity even in the worst circumstances. In this case, the circumstances were the concentration camps of World War II. There’s a slim chance you haven’t read or heard about those horrors, and even back in the 1940s when the book was originally published, Frankl knew this, so he spares us a lot of the heartbreaking details. Man’s Search for Meaning is a testament to the power of purpose that leaves you thinking: if these men could get through it, maybe I can too.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday This is the tough love pep talk we could all use. The book draws on stoic teachings coupled with anecdotes to help readers get through life’s hard stuff. It’s accessible and interesting. What I found most helpful was that it challenges one of the most damaging, preconceived notions many of us have about our emotions: that we are at their mercy, and that we must act on them. By simply questioning our emotional responses, we may discover that there’s another way forward, and come to realize that not every disappointment means death.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun who has written extensively about life. Although she’s a nun, her work isn’t especially religious. She writes about meditation for mindfulness but also for sending loving kindness to yourself and others. I’d recommend When Things Fall Apart especially for those who find “the power of positive thinking” a bit too magical. When you feel awful, it can be hard to muster up positive words, much less believe them, and Chödrön seems to get that. She tells you that sometimes things are just hard, and it doesn’t matter that your hard is a different type of hard from someone else’s. She suggests that you can get better at handling the hard stuff by sitting with it.

Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins At first glance, it seems like Goggins’ book was written for aspiring athletes due to its focus on exceptional physical feats like ultramarathons and elite special forces training. While he does spend a lot of time talking about those accomplishments, it’s only to show the reader what the mind is capable of. The mind is in control of the body, and you are in control of the mind. The audiobook version of Can’t Hurt Me includes additional input from Goggins in which he insists that, despite what some people have suggested, he is not a superhuman freak of nature. If there is anything exceptional about him, it’s his persistence — his willingness to endure suffering to reach his goal. And even that can be cultivated.



Alison Isaac

I’m a writer and teacher from Toronto, with roots abroad and interests everywhere.