Monday, October 5, 2009


Theodore Dalrymple, former prison doctor and now professional curmudgeon, confesses to his love of indignation:
I once had a patient who had had the words ‘Fuck off’ tattooed on his forehead in mirror writing. When I asked him for the reason for this, he said that it was to wake him up in the morning when he looked at himself in the glass. It never failed, he said.

Newspapers perform more or less the same function for me. There is always something in them to irritate me profoundly, and there is nothing quite like irritation to get the juices circulating and the mind working. . . .

Whenever I am in France, I read the French newspapers. There is always plenty in them to infuriate me, and so they are well worth the reading; for it must be confessed that indignation is one of the most rewarding of all emotions, as well as one that automatically gives meaning to life. When one is indignant, one does not wonder what life is for or about, the immensity of the universe does not trouble one, and the profound and unanswerable questions of the metaphysics of morals are held temporarily in abeyance.

I used to share this sentiment. I used to read things that I knew would offend me, seeking offense, and of course I found it. I reveled in intellectual condescension, moral superiority, and social snobbery. The pronouncements of idiots delighted me, and the actions of trashy people made me laugh.

I decided, though, that the whole business was at best a waste of energy and possibly a real danger to my soul. I now believe that a taste for indignation corrupts our judgment, and easy condemnation of others corrodes our morals. The root of any true morality is compassion, coupled to a sense of our own weakness. Not that I don't have opinions -- as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have a great many. I believe firmly that many ideas are stupid and many actions wrong. But I do not think that anger, mockery, or scorn are the right responses to human foibles.

And, honestly, I do not find that giving up the pleasure of indignation makes me less happy. I find, instead, that compassion releases me from anger, and that letting go of anger makes me much more pleased with myself and the world. To go about in a state of fury may have sharpened my wits for debate, but the price was constant tension and outbursts of anger and gloom. For me, at least, the Buddha was right: the way to happiness is compassion. I believe that indignation is something like bacon, or whiskey. A little may make you smile, but too much for too long and you have ruined your body, or your life.

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