Four Myths of Medical Life

by Professor Alan Kerr


Modern professional life is very stressful. We are facing pressures that our predecessors could never have imagined. Many of these are from our own colleagues. In any event many of our problems can be summed up in one story.

Some friends were hiking through the woods of Maine, in North America, a few years ago when they realised that just ahead of them was a huge ferocious looking grizzly bear. One of them pulled off his rucksack and started changing from his hiking boots into his trainers. They said to him: “You don’t think you are going to outrun a grizzly bear just by wearing trainers?” He replied: “I don’t have to outrun that bear, I just have to outrun you.” And that sums up a large part of professional life today.

Myth #1: “Tomorrow, life will be slower”

Let me move on to the first and possibly most deceitful one: “Tomorrow, life will be slower.” I think I am older than most here and I can assure you that unless you take drastic measures, this will just not be true. You may think that by becoming more important will slow life down. Being important solves nothing.

Two bishops were killed when their car was involved in a road accident with a sports car being driven by a young woman. And, as in so many of these theologically dangerous stories, all three found themselves standing outside the gates of heaven. The young woman was ushered straight in, but the bishops were told to have a seat while their records were checked. They protested: “This young girl goes straight in while we, senior bishops in the Church of England, are told to have a seat while our records are checked?” “Ah”, they were told, “since that girl got her sports car six months ago, she had put the fear of God into more people than you two have done in the past 50 years!”

And seniority does not help either. Seniority brings with it its own insecurities and these make us work harder and harder.

A world-renowned researcher, who was also an unpopular dean, decided that he would give the introductory lecture on diabetes and phoned the professor of medicine to tell him. A few days later, when he arrived to give the lecture, there were very few students there. “Did you tell them I was coming?”, he asked the professor of medicine. “No,” he was told, “it must have leaked out.”

Getting more money would not solve it either. In fact, the evidence is that the more money we get, the more we feel we need and before you know where you are you will be adding on a Sunday morning clinic. The need for more money is a self-perpetuating problem.

Why are you so busy and so short of time? You tell me, because you are the only one who really knows. But maybe you do not even know yourself.

But we can know why we are too busy. There is only one answer to slowing down our lives and that lies within ourselves. What are our priorities? And for the Christian, these will ideally always align with God’s priorities for us. And with God, there is always time to do what He wants. God does not ask us to do anything for which there is insufficient time. Jesus did not run around frantically trying to heal everyone in the Galilee. He did not preach every minute of every day, even though He had more to say than any of us, and only three years in which to do it.

I repeat, if God wants us to do anything, there is time, and some over, to allow us to stay in touch with Him. Much of what we do is wasted time, and if we want to slow down our lives, we do not wait until tomorrow, because it will not become any slower. We have to start to slow it and to do it today by aligning ourselves more faithfully to God.

Myth #2: “I can say ‘no’”

The second myth, often related to the first, is that although we usually say “yes”, we can say “no”.

About 20 years ago, I was asked to give a rather prestigious eponymous lecture. I was going to be abroad at the time and replied that I felt honoured by the invitation but that I just could not make it that year, thinking that there would be another year. About the same time the next year, I expected to be asked again but, no. Next year, no again and I have never been asked again. And that is the problem. So often we say yes because we may not get another invitation. We are so driven by status that we dare not take any risks to undermine this.

But we have got to learn to say “no”.

Status, of course is not the only reason why we are so busy. Many have taken on responsibilities for the altruistic reason that “no one else will do them”. They feel they cannot let the job go undone, and hence they cannot say no. But sometimes we overdo it, and maybe the answer is simply, to let it go. Jesus left a lot undone.

There will always be something more to be done but there is one job that only you can do and that is to be the father, or mother, of your children. That involves giving them unconditional love, which takes time, and, if need be, we have got to let the dead bury the dead. No matter how hard you try, some tasks will be left undone even as they carry your coffin out of the house. Maybe we need to start training for that now.

Myth #3: “I am only doing it for my family”

The third myth is well illustrated by the story of the Presbyterian minister, who got an invitation to be the minister to a bigger and wealthier church, which paid a better salary, and provided a better manse. A senior member of his current congregation called round to discuss it with him. The door was opened by a young boy who said: “Daddy is in the study praying about it, and mummy is upstairs packing.” Are we not all like that sometimes, looking for guidance but going ahead and acting on the answer we want?

That brings me to the third myth. I may be working hard with no time to spare, but really I am only doing this for my wife and family. We can rationalise anything. Of course, for wife and family, we can insert anything else that sounds good. And no doubt most of us do have high motivations. But we can get our motivations distorted, and we need to check them from time to time.

Some people are called to live busy and hectic lives but probably very few. Therefore, let us face it. Why are we living the way we are? Find the answer and act accordingly but the chances are that we are not doing it for our families.

Apart from everything else, we are not necessarily doing our children a favour when we earn a high income and then take them on an expensive holiday. We are putting them into ways that tend to limit and restrict their futures. They may well end up feeling that they need high earning jobs, and God is not calling all of us to such positions.

Myth #4: “Life would be great if only I didn’t have to work with…”

The fourth myth? “Life would be great if only I didn’t have to work with so-and-so.”

When William Tyndale was making the first full translation of the Bible into English, he created what was then a new word, “scapegoat”. This word occurs only four times in the Bible, all in Leviticus, but it is a very significant word. The scapegoat, the totally innocent goat, which was taken into the wilderness to die, brought reconciliation with God and peace to the people. The scapegoat was the precursor of Christ, who eventually became our scapegoat, the totally innocent bearing the sins of the guilty.

But the meaning of the word has changed over the centuries. The Levitical scapegoat was totally innocent and indeed had to be without blemish. And everyone knew this. But now we look for scapegoats in almost every situation and we usually believe them to be guilty.

But, we are still looking for peace from the scapegoat. Basically, what is now happening is that we are looking for peace among ourselves at the expense of a third party. We have moved from the idea of peace with God as a result of Christ’s voluntary sacrifice, to peace among ourselves at someone else’s involuntary sacrifice.

The world is full of this. It is all around us. Soccer is one of the best illustrations of the modern scapegoat mechanism. We have a soccer team that is not doing well. That is the first party, the team. The second party is the fans. And the fans are at loggerheads with the team because the team has let them down. How do we get peace between them. The club sacrifices a third party, the manager. He is fired and is in fact scapegoated. The fans are appeased and the team gets a fresh start. Now was the manager to blame for the team’s poor performance? Maybe he was, and maybe he was not. But that does not matter. He goes, and peace between the team and the fans is restored, at least for a time. Usually, by the way, the manager does not remain unemployed for very long because some other team, that has also fired its manager, signs him up.

This scapegoating mechanism is everywhere else. Everyone of us has done it, and most of us are probably doing it. If you are able to acknowledge this, you probably feel that the person you scapegoat deserves it and is indeed the cause of the trouble.

But look more closely at the situation. Everyone is agreed that old so-and-so in your department is the cause of the trouble and therefore he must be. That actually is questionable. But if you manage to get old so-and-so out, you do indeed have peace for a time but it is not long before new problems arise and a new scapegoat is needed, and the process starts all over again.

But most often we cannot get him out, and what happens then? First, we console ourselves, and each other, that the unhappiness in the department is his fault and not ours. This is really dangerous because it creates the idea that we do not have to do anything about the unhappiness. Secondly, our colleagues agree, usually implicitly, that that is where the problem lies. And thirdly, we are drawn closer to these other colleagues in our presumed affliction. Of course, it varies from department to department. Sometimes there are two or more camps, rather than individuals, with the same denial of personal responsibility, and we get some comfort and draw closer to our colleagues, by blaming, or scapegoating, other people.

And what about the scapegoat? Well, life is tough for him or her. Sometimes so tough that he may actually be driven out by the attitude of all around, making him so unhappy that he cannot stay. At the hospital, we have recently had a very good ward sister, who was driven out purely by the attitude of the other nurses.

How do we recognise the fact that we are scapegoating? Whenever you discuss someone or some group of people with others, and as a result of that discussion, you feel closer to the others, you probably are scapegoating. Most of you are silently denying it. That’s OK, but give it a fair hearing. Look and check that it is not really there.

Even being aware of it does not stop it, but if you want to stop, and we all ought to, being aware of it improves the chances of doing that. However, being aware of it also brings the temptation to do it. It can be used very effectively and very destructively. Hitler deliberately scapegoated the Jews to help bring the rest of the demoralised German nation together. The truth is that once we see and understand the scapegoating mechanism, we are tempted to use it, and that is verging on the wicked.

So life will not be alright when old so-and-so retires or young so-and-so goes to work in another hospital. Life may improve for a time, but have no fear, someone else will come along or some new problem will arise.

In the modern world, we have expanded scapegoating even further into our lives and taken it beyond people to things. We blame, or scapegoat, our circumstances for many of our problems. Look for this every time you find yourself saying, “if only”. “If only I had more money, I would be happy.” “If only my wife shared my interests, I would be fulfilled.” “If only I had a good camera, I would be a good photographer.” We could go on forever. But the true “if only” is this: if only I would stop looking for scapegoats and accept responsibility for where I am now and how I feel now, then I really could be happy and fulfilled. Scapegoating of others is usually unjust and scapegoating our own problems can be self-destructive.


There are other myths in professional life, but these four ought to be enough to keep us going. “Tomorrow life will be slower” – it would not. “I can say no” – I cannot. “I’m really only doing it for my wife and family” – I am not. And fourthly, the “if only” scenario – it is not true.

Deal satisfactorily with those four and you will be a better person than I. They present a lifelong challenge, but once we know about them we can look for them and hopefully, by the grace of God, do something about them.

This message was given at the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship's Annual General Meeting on 25 June 2004