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Angela Tilby: The value of not seeking the limelight

01 February 2019


WHEN I can’t sleep, I read medical memoirs. Grisly accounts of brain surgery and crises in A&E seem to numb me into dreamland faster than praying or counting sheep.

My night-time reading last year included Adam Kay’s bestselling account of his time as a hospital doctor (Obs and Gynae), This Is Going To Hurt: Secret diaries of a junior doctor (Picador). It is a hilarious and, at the same time, deeply scary account of everyday hospital life. When Kay left medicine, he cited his despair about the state of the NHS and the impossible demands on doctors. Fair comment: nobody is in serious doubt that the NHS needs reform. Yet underneath the criticism is a more personal grouse: that he constantly felt underappreciated.

Much as I enjoyed the book, I was left with some questions about this underlying cri de coeur. It made me wonder whether we have perhaps overdone the importance of personal recognition and, in the process, lost something of even greater value.

The demand to be seen as special was once seen as presumptuous, but now it is regarded as a right. It is encouraged by the way in which some parents tend to over-praise their offspring’s achievements. It is there in the way that young people are encouraged to see themselves as winners. It is there in the way that we have to write our CVs, constantly trying to prove that we are exceptional.

It is in business culture, where top bosses expect to cream off well-paid consultancies, in addition to their already inflated pay-packets. It is there as Members of Parliament jostle to position themselves for advancement in the fallout from Brexit: everyone is demanding that his or her own voice be heard rather than seeking consensus. We are right to ask what happened to the ethos of public service, of being content to do a good job without seeking the limelight, of supporting and following rather than having to appear to lead.

It is as though we all live on a pendulum that is swinging constantly between miserably low self-esteem and me-first grandiosity. The Church is not exempt. When I hear appeals to conversion, or a rousing call for more vocations, the emphasis seems always to be on individual fulfilment. Yet it is perhaps more typical of Christian vocation to emphasise humility, not seeking to be exceptional, heroic, or even successful.

At one time, those involved in health and social care would have found satisfaction in a job done as well as it could be done, even in far-from-ideal circumstances. There is serenity as well as challenge in St Ignatius’s aspiration, “To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to seek for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”

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