I freely admit that we literary types are wont to say everything comes back to story and that words can change the world. (We are also given to words like “wont” but that is another matter). This is mostly just the self-aggrandizement that accompanies any disciplinary passion. But I also really think there is something serious to the idea that stories can make a big difference to hearts and minds, and therefore our bodies. This might be that this is because my father was a practicing physician, but also a storyteller, and somehow it seemed to me that these things always fit together in my mind: The well-told story fixed something, put something broken back together, almost as literally as my father set a bone or wrapped a cast.
Some of you know that I have a growing interest in what is sometimes called the medical humanities, and I have been deeply interested in how the literary arts have been used in healing practices in everything from psych wards to cancer wards to Alzheimer’s facilities. The recent lovely piece from Kristin Sanner in the Chronicle Review, “The Literature Cure” is not quite so officially about the medical humanities, but it gets at this idea that somehow literature can be involved in our healing and our wholeness, even in the midst of dying and disease. A few notes from Sanner, on how her battle with breast cancer both changed her sense of literature and on how her commitment to literature changed her understanding of and response to her disease.
English majors and reluctant students of literature in my general-education courses often ask me questions like: “What exactly can you do with a degree in English?” “Why read all of these books from the past?” Before my cancer diagnosis, I would answer the English majors with practical examples. You could go into publishing or journalism, I told them, or go to graduate or law school. To the general-education students, I would answer with a vague “literature enriches our lives and makes us more well-rounded individuals.”
After my cancer diagnosis, my responses changed, becoming more universal and less practical. We read and study literature, I told my students, because it helps us understand how to live and how to die. It shows us how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to reach into our personal depths and find both meaning and will. It reminds us of the dichotomous fragility and tenacity of earthly living. It also teaches us how to care for those who suffer.
At a time when colleges and universities are making unilateral cuts to humanities programs, these reasons seem pertinent. Each of us, unfortunately, will experience adversity at some point in our lives. Many of us will find ourselves facing a tragedy, a trauma, or a loss that cannot be explained in simple terms. Conventional medicine and science may help us cope in a practical, physical sense—they may even cure us of our illnesses and pain. Religious faith will temper the suffering for some. But it is our universal stories—written, oral, and visual—that help us navigate through these adversities with grace and courage. For many of us, stories give us the hope that we may be able to bear the burdens of our afflictions and live fully, even as we are dying. Stories teach us that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class.
Throughout my battle with cancer, I have turned to literature and writing to make sense of this miserable and mysterious disease. Books help me understand that human suffering is universal. They have also taught me empathy—how to reach out to others who suffer. In a world where spite and hatred mark the rhetoric of so many, such an intangible attribute should be a vital, required outcome of every student’s educational experience.