During this time of year, we try to recognize our blessings and express our gratitude. Sadly, sometimes the fastest way to see how much we have to be thankful for is by seeing how hard others’ lives are. When we see how some people live, what they endure, or what they lack, we learn to appreciate what we already have.
Reading books about other people’s hard lives, whether real or fictional, can have the same effect. And let’s be honest: there are countless real people and fictional characters who have had rough lives. So keep in mind that this list of books is definitely far from all inclusive.
1. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
It’s funny how many basic things we sometimes take for granted, like sight and hearing. For someone who had neither, Helen Keller accomplished and overcame so much. Huge kudos go to her teacher, companion, and friend, Ms. Sullivan. Helen Keller became the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, and she actively campaigned for improvements in social welfare, women’s suffrage, and disability rights. Despite her disabilities, she clearly communicated her forceful personality.
2. Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
How can one woman be kicked down so many times in her life? Having been raped essentially, lost her child, been despised and rejected by the man she loves for being a rape victim, and then been stalked by her attacker, Tess snaps and kills Alec D’Uberville at the end of the book, not surprisingly. I genuinely struggled to read for feeling her pain so deeply. Every memorable fictional character experiences difficulties because that’s what makes a story compelling and a person complex. That’s why characters from hundreds of years ago still appeal to us today. But Tess has a story that makes me grateful to face my own struggles.
3. City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence
As hard or unfair as situations can seem in the western world, in our privilege we can’t imagine the hardships refugees endure. Fleeing war and violence, religious persecution, and famine and drought feel like problems faced by our ancestors long ago, but modern refugees are still facing these today.
In this nonfiction book, the author recounts stories that he either witnessed firsthand or recorded told by people in a Kenyan refugee camp or a city called Dadaab. One of these featured refugees is Guled, a young boy who was born just a few streets from the Somalian crash site of Black Hawk helicopters in 1993. He, his sister, and other orphaned children lived together in small house in Somalia and survived on odd jobs his older sister could find. He would often say, “I have no dreams,” and only wanted to live and play soccer. The stadium where he used to play became a place for executing punishment on traitors, spies, unbelievers, and those who disobeyed the rules. Eventually Guled and his makeshift family joined the 870,000 people who were displaced from their homes. Refugee children grow up fast by necessity, and Guled and others have had to make difficult choices to stay alive.
Regardless of political views, anyone with a heart would feel compassion for those who have suffered like these people suffer today and gratitude for essentials like food and shelter.
4. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
When physical problems surround you, you can go to your happy place or your ‘mental palace.’ Where do you go when your mind is where the tumult is? Dr. Jamison is one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness, and she has also experienced it firsthand. Approaching her disease from both perspectives as expert and patient, readers get an honest, vivid view of what is like to experience a mental disease. The author simultaneously raises awareness of mental illnesses and makes readers appreciate good mental health. Although I have faced depression in my life, I admit my struggles have not reached the extent that hers have, and I can honestly say I’m grateful that my mind usually functions properly.
5. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Before you even turn to page one, you know Hard Times isn’t going to be a happy book. It says it right in the title! Characters are abandoned by parents, convinced into loveless marriages, and accused of robbery and infidelity. Those who don’t die in the novel face unpleasant lifelong consequences. Let’s just say anything written by Charles Dickens belongs on this list of sad stories. Like his contemporary Thomas Hardy, Chuck is one author who knew how to torture his characters, especially the children.
6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Medical research conducted since the 1950s has relied heavily on the use of “HeLa” cells, which originally came from a black cervical cancer patient named Henrietta Lacks. HeLa cells enabled scientists to experiment on human cells outside the body and led to the polio vaccine and breakthroughs in hundreds of critical medical studies. She has saved millions of people. Doesn’t sound too bad so far, right?
Henrietta Lacks was raised by her grandfather, received a sixth-grade education, and married her first cousin. She delivered her first baby with him just months after turning 14 years old. With a diagnosis of “idiocy,” one of Henrietta’s daughters was committed to a mental hospital, where she was badly treated and eventually died. Henrietta’s toxic cancer treatment killed her slowly and painfully, burning her from the inside out. She died at the young age of 31. Her tissue sample that led to HeLa cell cultures had been taken without her knowledge and without her husband’s comprehension of what it would be used for after her death. The family did not know about HeLa cells until decades later.
Henrietta’s other daughter, Deborah, grew up without a loving mother or involved father and later had severe anxiety because of HeLa. Her brothers were angry and distrusted medical professionals, all because no one explained to them the science of HeLa cell cultures and what their mother’s cells were being used to do. Plus, the Lacks family never received any money or profits from medical research or breakthroughs. As pharmaceutical companies make millions from studies using Henrietta’s cells, her children can’t afford medical insurance.
Although the fact that her cells have enabled scientists to discover cures and treatments for many diseases, her and her children’s story is truly a tragic one.
7. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
Don’t get me wrong, Katniss is an amazing fictional character: strong, capable, smart. But as I read the The Hunger Games series, I kept thinking how absolutely awful it would be to be her, to watch your friends and family die, to witness horrible crimes against humanity, to have to make the choice of killing someone to survive. Yes, in the end, she is happy and more at peace with Peeta (Go Team Peeta!) and her children just as she deserves, but the nightmares and ghosts of her past experiences remain. She will never fully erase those horrors. She is amazing, but I don’t envy her life at all.
I’ve felt the same way about many of the greatest literary heroes (like Harry Potter). Again, incredible character and story, but I would not want to be him in real life. Even though they are fake, book characters can endure psychological torture and torture us as readers as a result. That’s when I’m grateful to be the reader, someone who can “experience” the character’s life from a safe place.
Why Read Sad Stories?
I’m not trying to depress you, although sadness is an unavoidable result of reading sad stories, that is if you don’t have a black heart. But sad stories can affect us more than just making us sad. These kinds of stories can make us feel gratitude for what we do have. Unlike some of these people, I live in a country where I don’t fear sharing my ideas and beliefs. I gained an education and am able to use my education in my work. I have a supportive and loving husband and family. Compared to them, I have nothing to complain about!
With some of these sad stories, we can gain courage and strength to fight against the source of suffering and win. Some of the characters or real people in these stories triumphed. Others didn’t. But we see the ugly potential of what would happen if we didn’t even try to conquer.
After reading these stories, how can we not want to change the world to help people who endure difficulties? We are entering the time of year about peace, generosity, and love. And from the looks of the world today, we need these things more than ever.
Which books or people would you add to the list? What do these kinds of stories make you grateful for?
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Featured image via Chris Mullen