Be drunk and not a ‘martyred slave of time’

Peter Aird is a GP in Bridgwater, Somerset.

How about impressing your appraiser with this as one of your PDP goals for the coming year: ‘Be drunk’.

Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) wrote:

“You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it – it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.”

I know this because yesterday morning, having addressed his presenting complaint, a patient quoted the above to me – in the original French. He also plays jazz professionally and in the past has, on occasions, performed with Acker Bilk. How cool is that?

The poem goes on:

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking… ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

I suspect many of us have woken again this week, ‘in the mournful solitude’ of our consulting rooms, stone cold sober as a consequence of having had the cold water of another day on the front line thrown in our face. Baudelaire tells us that to avoid being the ‘martyred slaves of time’ the only way is to be intoxicated by something good that consumes us.

Many of us will have an interest outside of work that does this for us but what if, in addition, it were possible to be continually drunk on our practice of medicine?

Together we can survive, leaning on our colleagues in both primary and secondary care even as we allow them to lean on us.

Currently this is far from easy, given the way we are forced to practise. Rather than losing ourselves in our work, delighting in it, we are forced to be too self aware – having as we are to constantly justify ourselves. Have you ever thought how the system inherently criticises us? Our constant need to demonstrate improvements in our practice implies that we are never considered to be good enough whilst our endless need to gather feedback is a system of policing employed by those who can not bring themselves to trust us.

Medicine, like life itself, is a team game in which we all play our part. Highlighting individual weaknesses rather than emphasising team strengths is like a lion isolating the injured in a herd of antelope and going in for the kill. Together we can survive, leaning on our colleagues in both primary and secondary care even as we allow them to lean on us.

How does the poem go? If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn. Is it any different for doctors? Is it any wonder that sometimes we are a little condemning, a little bitter, a little negative? But if instead we lived with encouragement, might we not learn to be a little more confident, if we lived with approval, might we not learn to like ourselves a bit more (something too many of us struggle with), and if we lived with acceptance, might we not learn again to love what we do.

And wouldn’t that make us better, more caring, doctors?

So let’s get drunk this weekend on whatever it is that does it for us but don’t forget that, leaving aside the nonsense, being a GP remains a worthwhile endeavour. Yes, it could be better but it still has the capacity to be both wonderfully enjoyable and genuinely satisfying. Of course we’re not perfect, that’s an impossible job, but regardless of what some might say, remember that, together, as we frequently say to our patients by way of encouragement, we are ‘good enough’.

Stick that knowledge in your hip flask and sip from it frequently this coming week.


Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash

The British Journal of General Practice and BJGP Open are bringing research to clinical practice. BJGP Life is where we add the debate and opinion to help ensure everyone benefits from that research.

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