Modesty is a virtue, but not always

As GK Chesterton said: ‘The devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t brag himself,’ and we Irish could sing a few bars of that. A modest race, we are disinclined to boast and consider bloviation rather vulgar, a sign of underlying insecurity. Pride comes before a fall, and the rest of us hope it will be a big one.

But such modesty is not always a virtue. When Seamus Heaney first went to the US and they asked him what he did, he shuffled his feet in embarrassment. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I tip away at the writing a wee bit now and then.’

‘Really?’ they said, ‘Is that all? Then f*** off back to Ireland, bogman.’

The Yanks are straight talkers; if you’re good, say so. They just don’t appreciate modesty. So ever after, wherever he travelled, Seamus Heaney introduced himself grandly as Ireland’s Greatest Poet.

I have learned from my fellow writer’s mistake, and I always introduce myself as Ireland’s Greatest Medical Writer. It ain’t exactly the poet laureate, I admit, medical writing being the synchronised swimming of the literary world. And whenever I pick up yet another award, I usually lap up the plaudits, quote La Rochefoucauld (‘To refuse praise is to wish to be praised twice’) and graciously accept the affections of the many beautiful women mesmerised by the glamour.

Excessive modesty is a form of untruth. Google ‘chiropractic’, ‘homeopathy’ and ‘detoxification’ and you’ll find all sorts of exaggerated claims, but the snake-oil sellers are targeting a vulnerable and gullible section of the population. As any con artist will tell you, people want to be fooled, they want to believe detox insoles will allow them to excrete urea through their feet, rather than the conventional method of visiting the bathroom.

Real medicine, by contrast, is too honest to boast. We don’t parade scientific advances; instead, we are so aware of our limitations that we insist on inflicting our uncertainties on lay people.

‘A man’s got to know his limitations,’ said Clint Eastwood; but he shouldn’t necessarily explain them to his patients.


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