Tag Archives: Liberal arts

Super Suffering of the English major? A second opinion

The headline read in part, “Do English majors suffer more than most?” http://www.startribune.com/a-minneapolis-therapist-asks-do-english-majors-suffer-more-than-most/379785081/

Of course, I assumed they were reading Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck or Dostoyevky or Jane Austin. Those characters share a lot of suffering with their readers.

When I mentioned the headline to a friend she nodded with understanding – Of course English majors suffer more – they cringe over every dangling participle, sentence fragment and grammatical faux pas when they read the morning paper or any document issued by a bureaucracy.

It was my liberal arts son who posited that, though English majors may suffer more, they suffer more eloquently….

So I actually took time to read the tragic tale of the 45 year old therapist who has endured the inevitable suffering that befalls the hapless English major. She’s torn between the impoverished life of the unfulfilled writer and the time constraints of her more lucrative career as a therapist.

Possibly because I’m just not sensitive to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I’ve long valued my venerable English major as a most congenial badge of honor.   After all these years I have no claim to English major-induced suffering. This lack of pain persists even when I mentally compare suffering charts with non-English majors who sought their fortunes in the corporate world.

In fact, on the whole I’ve found it useful to be able to communicate with some clarity in my native tongue.   I enjoy the ability to spot a literary allusion at twenty paces. For me, an occasional crossword puzzle relieves the cares of the day. As a public transit enthusiast I treasure the relaxed time to share the reading habit with fellow travelers who’ve settled in with a good read. A well-turned phrase can brighten the cloudiest day and a heavy dose of the King’s English catapults me all the way to Monday morning. In fact, reading and writing are fairly essential elements of my personal and professional life.

Maybe it’s because I knew I would never make it to the NYT Best Seller list or achieve immortality in the next edition of the Norton Anthology. Maybe I just always thought there was more to life than a hefty paycheck, a big office and a title. Maybe I would rather learn than try to tell others how to live their lives.

Or perhaps I’m just impervious to the suffering in which I have been steeped unwittingly all these years. In any event, no regrets re the English major.

I will always know in my heart of hearts that, in case of imprisonment or exile I will survive, possibly thrive — as an English major I am fortified by the knowledge that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Lovelace) and that “my strength is as the of strength of ten because my heart is pure.” (Tennyson)  As an English major I am secure in the conviction of Somerset Maugham who taught us that “to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

I’ll have snippets of poetry to recall, stories of charismatic heroines and mighty villains to revisit, and enough understanding of the human condition to feel the pain of others. I will assuage my temporal pain with reflections on the eternal dilemma faced by every English major: “To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.”

Anna Quindlen, who earned her liberal arts degree at Barnard, seems to cope well with her suffering. In her delightful book How Reading Changed My Life, she writes:

In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the “shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. A Wrinkle in Time described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.”

It’s also uplifting to cherish the words of poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran who reminds us that “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls.”

Though I feel the pain of the English major therapist who has endured such suffering I hold with the rosier view espoused by Garrison (nee Gary) Keillor’s imaginary support group, the Professional Organization of English Majors, (POEM). As English majors already know, the promises, purposes and products of POEM are readily accessible online http://www.mtv.com/artists/garrison-keillor/discography/2348974/, at the library or bookstore or at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2334820.A_Prairie_Home_Companion