Editor's Choice

Self pity will destroy you

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7455.0-g (Published 24 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:0-g
  1. Richard Smith (rsmith{at}bmj.com), editor

    Today I'm in old fart mode. I'm on my way to Stockton on Tees to don a gown and speak to students of the University of Durham who have completed the first phase of their medical course. In two weeks' time I'll do the same for students at St George's Hospital Medical School. It's an occupational hazard for old farts, particularly for those who venture into print with sententious advice to medical students (BMJ 2003;327: 1430).

    I'm feeling contrite because what I will say to the students is roughly what I've said before, but I'm wondering if I should add a homily on self pity. It is, I've been reflecting, something that can destroy you almost more quickly than anything else and is to be resisted with every fibre of your being. Yet you will be constantly tempted. We are bombarded with opportunities to feel sorry for ourselves. Every day we are misunderstood, overworked, underappreciated, and even abused, and regularly “something unfair” will happen: we will become ill, miss a train, or fail after 15 minutes to get through to BT's complaints department. We may even suspect a conspiracy: “somebody's out to get me.”

    D H Lawrence recognised the dangers of self pity with lines that we all should remember: “A bird will drop frozen from a bough/Without once having felt sorry for itself.” But I learn from today's Guardian (21 June, p 1) that even the most powerful man in the world can be infected with self pity. Bill Clinton, whose autobiography is published this week, was consumed with self pity when pursued by prosecutors over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

    Two Africans rescued him. A Rwandan woman described how she had overcome self pity after her husband and six children were hacked to death, and Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th century, told him how he had managed to forgive those who had imprisoned him for 27 years. “I had to let it go,” said Mandela. “They took the best years of my life… They destroyed my marriage. They abused me physically and mentally. They could take everything except my heart and mind. Those things I would have to give away and I decided not to give them away.”

    Clinton managed to follow this advice, forgiving his tormentors and resisting self pity. “You do this,” he observes, “not for other people but yourself. If you don't let it go it continues to eat at you.”

    This is the crucial point. Self pity will destroy you, not the people whom you might feel rightly or wrongly are attacking you. BT's complaints department will not care a hoot, and nor will the train you've just missed.

    Observant readers will notice that I've become almost religious as I approach editorial extinction. I feel that I have messages to impart, but I will try to resist. Yet fear not: eternal silence is close—untainted by self pity.

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