Life Lessons from Fiction for Personal Growth?
Can fiction be useful for teaching direct lessons on how we live our lives? I think it can, but I had to be persuaded at first (after researching this post). Keep reading for six life lessons from fiction that you can apply today for personal growth.
I gravitate to reading non-fiction. In 2019 when I tallied up the books that I had read that year, I discovered I had read only 30% fiction. I like the direct, linear approach of most non-fiction books tackling a specific problem or challenge.
Nonetheless, when I began to think about writing a blog post with quotes that resonated with me from the books that I had read, the ones that rose to the top were from fiction.
Author John Piper said:
“Books don’t change people, paragraphs do – sometimes sentences.”
I think he’s 100% correct.
First lines can draw us into stories – some of them exceptionally well. (Keep reading to take a quiz and find out how well you know some famous first sentences of books.)
The truth is that even though I’ve read hundreds of books in my life, there are a few that stick out to me as favorites. Most of them are favorites because I appreciated the story in a broad way. Some of them influenced my thinking and pushed me deeper into a study area.
But a select few of the books that I’ve read contained a paragraph or a sentence that plunged into my heart and mind and offered something of substance that continues to color my perspective.
Six Lessons from Fiction for Personal Growth
These are six sentences from my reading that I’ve pulled from my notes to reflect on what life lessons might be in the fiction that I’ve read.
1. Expect Change
“This is not what I had planned; but perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.” From Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie covers India’s transition out of British colonialism to independence and then partition. It follows the personal life of one child born at the stroke of midnight when India became its own country.
It is this quote that continues to resonate with me in a very specific way, despite my lack of any connection with India’s independence.
So much of my journey from college to where I am today is not at all what I expected. Knowing this makes it very hard for me to answer the “where do you see yourself in five years” question.
Goals are good, yes, but my ideas about what is important and meaningful have changed dramatically.
I don’t think I’m a failure for that. I think that’s indicative of a growing and dynamic life. If anything, I’m glad I’m not in the lifestyle I thought I wanted when I was in college. Or ten years ago.
This quote reminds me that sometimes plans get off-course because even though I thought I was in the middle of one story, I was in fact writing a different one, so to speak.
2. Engage Your Heart
“Where the heart is concerned there are no insignificant events: it magnifies all things. It puts on the same scales the fall of an empire and the drop of a woman’s glove: in fact the glove is usually found to weigh more than the empire.” From History of the Thirteen by Honoré de Balzac
Oh Balzac! He’s one of my all-time favorite authors. His style can go a bit “off” if you’re not used to it. He’ll be writing right along and then address the reader directly to explain some nuance of Parisian life. I actually think I like him for that reason.
This particular quote is framed above my desk. I love the juxtaposition of the personal and national, and the acknowledgement that the passion of the heart always makes an event more than what it is in significance. The personal and intimate is often, though that which we would consider mundane, the more meaningful.
This is a reminder to me to keep my priorities in check.
3. Practice Humility
“Watching my father, I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything if you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.” From The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I read this book years ago. In this scene, Leah, one of four daughters living in a family of missionaries to the Belgian Congo, chooses to admit she doesn’t know something.
Though Leah deeply wants to impress the friend sharing the message, she decides in this split- second to stop pretending to know more than she does because, as the first part of this quote mentions, she’d seen how her father always tried to be the smartest person in the room and he then wasn’t open to learning anything.
I don’t like not knowing, but I also like learning. This small quote from the middle of an otherwise large book stuck out instantly as something I needed to remember. I still have a hard time saying any variation of “I don’t know,” but I have done it more and more.
How about you? Are you brave enough to say “I don’t know?” How much of a reader are you really? Take this quiz and see if you can match these seven first sentences to the book they are in…think you can do it?
Well, how’d you do? Any of them sound familiar? Any of them enough to pull you into adding them to your tbr pile? Let’s keep going – 3 more life lessons from fiction to go!
4. Define Your Priorities
“Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.” From Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This one stings. I’ve thought often about our allegiance to those things that make us comfortable or feel happy. We make so many decisions based on these two factors alone.
I wonder if, in the end, we will reflect on our life and think, “Well, at least I was comfortable. At least I was happy.” I don’t think that those will be my benchmarks, yet how often is that how I make decisions right now?
5. Beware Good Intentions
“Everything here suggested perpetuity: buildings instead of tents, streets instead of paths, even street signs. The recolonization of Africa by the imperialism of good intentions.” Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo
When I taught a couple college courses on international conflict, this quote was sometimes a starting point for our conversations about the difference between relief work and development work.
If I were to extract a generalized takeaway from this book and this quote: actions speak louder than words.
We may say that our efforts to be helpful are temporary, but if we’re also building permanent structures and systems that require our continual attention then our actions are speaking a great deal more about what we believe someone else is capable of and who we are really trying to help.
In the past five years I’ve been digging into history and systemic racism in the United States. This idea of intention again surfaced. “I didn’t mean to” may be the truth of your intention but it is not a pass for the impact it left on someone else.
The more that the idea of “good intentions” settled in my brain, the more I heard myself saying it everywhere. And my kids were saying it to. “But I didn’t mean to…” as if expecting that to make it all right or the boo-boo to stop hurting on the other child.
Yes, intentions matter, but our impact doesn’t end there. Nor does our responsibility.
6. Build on Substance
“We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ah, Bradbury. I’ve read his collected works, and he has quite a range, but no other story quite cuts as deep as his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
In this scene a retired English professor, Faber, is explaining to the protagonist, Montag, why books are so important. Their society has become entranced by reality programming – by its vapid, air-brushed projection of life. Books are a threat because they show details and grit.
Faber continues by comparing their community trying to subsist on this alternate, glossy reality to flowers trying to live on flowers.
In other words, living on beauty and end-results without going through the hard work of pushing through dirt and nourishing ourselves and making a full cycle of life.
In effect, this quote reminds me to check that I am stepping intentionally through life with a solid foundation and purpose, not shirking knowledge or growth or struggle. As a Christian that means with an eye towards God’s leadership and direction within the context of our modern setting.
There are no shortcuts.
Six Life Lessons from Fiction
Let’s put these life-lessons together in one spot.
Here are six lessons I learned from reading fiction.
- Expect change (Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie)
- Engage your heart (History of the Thirteen by Honoré de Balzac)
- Practice humility in order to learn (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)
- Define your priorities (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley)
- Beware good intentions (Acts of Faith by Phillip Caputo)
- Build on substance (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
How to Learn from Fiction
Whether I am reading fiction or non-fiction I tend to remember books based on broad themes and generalized contributions to my general consciousness and worldview. Rarely can I quote chapter and verse on an event or comment on what specifically happened.
But every once in a while, a sentence or two will stick out as significant. These six aren’t the only ones that I’ve stored
Go ahead and get on the fiction bandwagon – or keep on it if you’ve never jumped off 🙂
Take Piper’s observation to heart. Jot down a sentence or two that jumps out to you as meaningful beyond plot development in the story.
Then ask yourself three questions: what does this teach about life? Do I believe that to be true? Why or why not?
What life lessons have you pulled from fiction?