Choosing a favorite book was an impossible assignment. There's simply no way to take a lifetime of reading great books and single out a handful as the most influential in my life. So I've picked one, The Return of the Prodigal Son, that had a profound effect on me, and that I believe will be equally meaningful to others.
It was given to me by a friend in 1994 after I had experienced some tragic and painful losses—my father, my mother-in-law and our dear friend Vince Foster all died. I was reading a lot of Scripture and theology and other books of inspiration at the time. This book struck a responsive chord, because the story is such a moving and constructive parable about what matters in life. The Reverend Henri J.M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest, analyzes the story of the prodigal son as told by Jesus in the New Testament. Nouwen offers the perspectives of the father and of his sons, the one who returns home after squandering his fortune and the dutiful older son who never left. One sentence hit me like a lightning bolt: "The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy."
I had never thought of gratitude as a habit or discipline before, and I discovered that it was immensely helpful to do so. When I found myself in a difficult situation, I began to make a mental list of all that I was grateful for: being alive and healthy for another day, loving and being loved by family and friends, and experiencing the awesome privilege of working on behalf of my country. By consciously reminding myself of my blessings, I could move from pessimism to optimism, from grief to hopefulness.
Nouwen's book contains universal, timeless lessons for people of all religions, backgrounds and cultures. It really is about how our heavenly Father, God, loves us despite our shortcomings and failings. For me it was a call to the discipline of gratitude and also to forgiveness. And I certainly have had plenty of occasions to use both. I would encourage everyone to read it, particularly if they are going through difficult times.