Three chords and the truth?

“Moon hanging low over my window

Shoebox of dreams hid under my bed

Follow the bright light city of gold

I had to leave to realise all I needed was here”*

[This post contains spoilers for the film ‘Wild Rose’]

Not so long ago I watched ‘Wild Rose’, the film for which the wonderfully talented Jessie Buckley received a BAFTA nomination for best actress. She plays the part of Rose-Lynn, a young Scottish woman who has made some poor choices in life but who, on being released from prison, starts to pursue her dream of becoming a country singer. Her desire to make it to Nashville, Tennessee is, however, somewhat hindered by her being a single mother to two young children and having a mother who, having looked after the children whilst she was in jail, not unreasonably believes her daughter’s responsibility towards her little boy and girl take precedent over her ambitions of making it in the music industry.

Rose-Lynn however is set on succeeding and despite having it pointed out to her by her mother that there is ‘no shortage of folk who can sing’ eventually makes it to Nashville only to discover when she arrives there that there are no end of young hopefuls, all of whom are trying to do the same thing that she is. On a visit to the legendary country music venue, the Ryman Auditorium, Rose-Lynn slips away from the tour guide and finds herself on the stage where she sings an impromptu song to the empty auditorium, accompanied only by a few members of the band who are there rehearsing. At this point in the film one might have expected her to have been overheard by a music promoter who would then have offered her a recording contract. But no industry mover and shaker is listening, only a security guard who remarks how ‘you would not believe how many people do what [she] has just done’. Shortly after Rose-Lynn returns home to her family and a year later is seen performing at her local country music club, content not to have made it big.

In a world where we are constantly promised that our dreams will come true if we only want them to enough, it was refreshing to watch a film where this was not the case. Despite some bad language and a scene or two that you may not want to have watched alongside your grandmother, it seemed to me that this was a more suitable message for our children to hear than those contained in many films that are specifically aimed at them.

Rather than being told that everyone is awesome and that whatever we dream of can be ours if only we would believe it enough, Rose-Lynn discovers the truth; that though she can undoubtedly sing, not only is she not so very different to many others, not so very special, but also that she doesn’t have to travel far from home to find the satisfaction she desires in life. She learns that, rather than trying to earn the admiration of strangers on account of her striving to be someone she isn’t, it is better to be loved by those who will continue to do so despite her being who she actually is. Because, though to be lauded by others may have some temporary appeal, the constant demand to perform beyond your capabilities is unsustainable and will eventually lead to your downfall whereas, those who are unconditionally loved for who they are know the security that enables them to become better than they would otherwise have been. Sometimes we all just have to simply accept who we are – even if to do so is, at times, impossibly hard.

Perhaps there is a message in there, for both our patients and ourselves.

Discontent – there’s a lot of it about these days and much of it is, of course, both wholly understandable and entirely appropriate. Even so, without suggesting that no one should ever seek to better themselves but instead simply accept one’s lot in life regardless of how poor the deal they have been dealt in life might be, perhaps if we were all to have more modest ambitions of what to expect in life we would all be less disillusioned and unhappy than we sometimes find ourselves. Endlessly striving for levels of awesomeness that are simply beyond most of us, constantly being told we can and should be better, fuels our unhappiness and stops us appreciating what of value we already have.

Because by sowing the seeds of discontent, we reap a harvest of disillusion.

And it’s not only in the area of our emotional well-being that we might benefit from more realistic goals. In my work as a doctor I wonder how many people I have told that they aren’t good enough – that they need to exercise more, eat better, and have a lower cholesterol, blood pressure or BMI. For sure, to suggest such things, is not bad advice but we should ask ourselves whether a 11% chance of developing heart disease in the next 10 years is really so bad when related to a 75 year old, whether a cholesterol of 5.2 is something that is inherently something to be dissatisfied about, and whether a BMI above 25 needs as urgent attention as we sometimes suggest. Surely these things are only tantamount to disaster to the degree to which our dream is to never die. Sadly, however, such a dream is not ours to have, however much we may want it.

But what of we medical professionals we who so often find ourselves defined by who we are at work. Too often we are told we are required to be better than we know ourselves to be, not only by a system that demands that we be without fault but which still insists that we show year on year improvement, but also by our own, frequently too critical, internal systems of self judgement. Perhaps our inherent ordinariness needs to be accepted a little more by both ourself and others if we are to be both happier and, consequently, ultimately more effective.

Some of us may even need to give up the notion that the only way to be happy is by being a doctor. Some dreams only fail to come true – some, however, become nightmares. Whilst medicine can be a very rewarding career, the truth is that for many it is simply not. For some happiness lies elsewhere.

Of course it is not just medics who can sometimes feel out of their depth in the career they find themselves in. Regardless of what job we may do, for those of us who are ‘tired and weak and worn’ the answer isn’t to simply ‘keep on keeping on, to keep on being strong’. Instead, when it all becomes too much, we, like Rose-Lynn, need perhaps to stop and rest in the acceptance of those who love us, however weak we may be. ‘Keep your loved ones near’ is always good advice but particular so when times are hard.

Though it may be a cause of sadness, there is no shame in being unable to give what you do not have and can not attain. It is a shame however when we imagine that there is.

Another thing that struck me in ‘Wild Rose’ was when Rose-Lynn’s mother says to her “I wanted you to learn responsibility. I didn’t want to take away your hope.”

The line stood out for me and raised the question in my mind as to whether the two need to be at odds with one another. For Rose-Lynn it seems at first that the responsibility she has towards her children, the duty she has to look after them, is the end of all hope of her ever being truly happy. But that isn’t necessarily so, as is made clear in the film. Though a struggle at times, doing what is right has its own rewards, not for any associated acclaim but for the satisfaction that comes simply from doing what needs to be done for others.

Some years ago I finished work particularly late on account of being caught up with a patient I’d visited after evening surgery. I’d been invited to a gathering that evening for a friends 70th birthday but as a result of my having to manage and admit the patient I was visiting, the celebrations were all but over by the time I arrived. Those at the party commented on how I must have had a bad day given how long the day had been but in truth they were mistaken. On the contrary it had been a good day because, on that occasion at least, doing what was required of me, was both worthwhile and satisfying.

What I’d done wasn’t anything particularly amazing, there were no QoF points attached to my actions, nor was a box ticked that day that would, at some later date, satisfy my appraiser. Instead it was just a small thing that made a difference, something that mattered to the individual concerned. Sometimes it’s the ‘sweet little nothings that add up to some things that we can’t do without’.

Acting responsibly then can be rewarding especially if we remember that, first and foremost, those to whom we should act responsibly towards are not those who seek only to regulate us but those who come to us for help. Contrary to popular belief, success is not all about personal development, we were not ‘born to run, to get ahead of the rest’, it’s not good to always want, or need, ‘to be the best’.

The truth is that sometimes ‘it’s alright to be all wrong.’, that ‘you’ve got to be weak, if you want to be strong’. We all want to be needed which means of course that somebody has to be the one who has needs. On occasions that somebody will have to be us. And that is something we all need to be OK about.

Furthermore, there is more joy to be had in seeing someone other than oneself flourish and enjoy what passes as success than there is in insisting on our having that success oneself. We none of us need to be loved by everyone and, in a world where some do not know what it is to be loved by anybody, what kind of person would require that they were?

And so we need to resist the constant demand that we must always be improving in the mistaken belief that what we have and what we are is not enough. But if it’s true that others need to be content with who we are, then perhaps we need to learn what it is to be more content with who we are too. Happiness lies more in the acceptance of our ordinariness than in a pursuit of an impossible perfection that will drain us of any joy we may otherwise have had.

In my recent appraisal I was asked what I thought I needed to improve in the coming year. I answered, and yes I was subsequently revalidated, ‘nothing much’. This was not because I am foolish enough to think that I am without fault, far from it, but because, conscious of my limits, I can’t help thinking that, rather than loading myself down with the burden of having to do what in all probability I will not be able to, I, and everybody else, would be bettered served if I concentrate on doing the things I can. And in a years time, if ‘progress’ doesn’t spoil things, I hope that you’ll find me, not singing in a local club, I’ll spare you that, but contentedly plying my trade in the local GP practice where I work, among and alongside the people of the local community of whom I am very fond. Because after 23 years my practice feels a bit like home and, as we all know, ‘there’s no place like home’.

So let’s accept who we are a little more, enjoy doing the little things we can that help others, because the little things matter enormously. A few weeks ago I reflected on the fact the things that I did that most made a difference included my knocking on the door of somebody whose mental state was concerning his wife, showing somebody what I considered an amusing 40 second film that I’d made of my dog, and reassuring an elderly lady newly diagnosed with coeliacs disease that of course she could ‘cheat’ occasionally and so have the gluten rich curry she wanted at a special family gathering she was looking forward to attending. Such seemingly insignificant actions are important even if their effect is unmeasurable. They can be, and often are, enough.

Not all of life is special and not every story has a happy ending. None of us are all that special either. But it needn’t matter if we can find enjoyment in the ordinary and satisfaction in the every day. Not everything that is important is big, and the notion that we can only know happiness if our wildest dreams come true is not one that comes close to according with the truth.

[*all unattributed quotes are lines from songs in the film]

For anyone interested, here’s a link to hear Jessie Buckley singing ‘Glasgow (No Place Like Home)’ from the film ‘Wild Rose’

Better still, the whole film is available on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

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