How about impressing your appraiser with this as one of your goals for personal development in 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 dealt with his chronic cough, 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?
Currently this is far from easy, given the way we are forced to practice. 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, it’s an impossible job, but regardless of what some might say, remember that, as we frequently say to our patients by way of encouragement, together we are ‘good enough’.
Stick that knowledge in your hip flask and sip from it frequently this coming week.
Charles Baudelaire got something very right in his poem ‘Be drunk’. He felt the need for something to which one can give one’s life, something by which one can transcend the ‘horrible burden of time’. But he also got something very wrong. His suggestions as to what that thing might be, wine, poetry or even virtue, can never satisfy for more than a moment. He should have looked elsewhere for that. And so must we.
It is not wrong though to want to be happy – nor is it wrong to want that happiness to last for eternity.
C.S. Lewis has it right when he said,
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”
We were, then, created to be happy – our desire for happiness proves that this is the case. The psalmist knew it too and what is more he knew where to find the happiness he was created to enjoy. And so he cries out to God.
‘You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ (Psalm 16:11)
You want infinite happiness? You’ll find it in the presence of God – there you will find ‘fullness of joy’. You want eternal happiness? That too is found in God – at his right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore’.
To delight in God is to honour him and it is, therefore, far from wrong to want to be eternally happy.The evil comes from seeking our happiness in the wrong places.
‘Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
God is the fountain of living water, the source of all our satisfaction. It is evil not to go to him for this all encompassing joy. And it is evil, as well as utterly foolish, to seek our satisfaction in anything else since everything else is but a broken cistern in comparison to the fountain of living water that is God.
Baudelaire once wrote:
“I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy”
For this life he was right – nothing in this life is not in some way or another tarnished by the fall and even the most perfect of experiences are tempered by the knowledge that they will end. Therein lies the melancholy. But Baudelaire neglected to look beyond this world, to the God that transcends all that we see and experience – the God who is both good and everlasting. We can never fully know happiness until we fully know God. As C.S. Lewis put it:
“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing”
The gospel assures us though that to know God is to have eternal life and that through the redemption that has been, is being, and will be attained through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we will one day have this experience for ourselves. Not yet though,
‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)
On that day, however, we will know a joy that at present we do not have the capacity to fully conceive. Then, as Baudelaire might have put it we will be drunk on God. Then there will be no ‘horrible burden of time’, no melancholy, but rather all of eternity to rejoice in the glory of the one whom we will eternally delight to praise.