The Ugly Duckling
Bernie Siegel


I probably talk about the importance of loving yourself almost as much as I talk about the importance of loving other people.  I am not encouraging people to be self-indulgent and focused only on themselves.  You must love other people to have a truly fulfilling life, but you have to start by loving yourself.  If you hate yourself and neglect yourself, what are you going to do when someone comes along and advises you to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

If you have trouble loving yourself, think about the ugly duckling.  Remember how the little foundling embarrassed his mother and his siblings by being different?  How his mother was constantly explaining or making excuses to the neighbors for his behavior and his looks?  Then one day, tired of making excuses, she cast him out of the nest.

The ugly duckling wandered about the world, alone and forlorn, until at last he met kindred spirits who gave him the gift of reflection.  Encouraged, the duckling looked into the still water of a pond and saw for himself the truth his duck family hadn't seen--that he was a beautiful swan.

In life, the mirror-holder often turns out to be someone outside the family.  I held the mirror for Stewart, a chubby boy who attended a camp where I was a counselor before I went to medical school.  Every afternoon the counselors chose teams by alternating picks--an effective way of balancing out the talent but an excruciating experience for the kids who are not picked until the end.

Having had some experience as an ugly duckling myself, I saw how badly it hurt Stewart to be passed over round after round.  I decided there were better things I could do with my picks than choosing a winning softball team.  One afternoon I made Stewart my first pick.  When I saw how happy it made him, I decided to pick another clumsy camper on the next round, and another the round after that.  Before long all the really clumsy kids and poor athletes were gathered around me and I was forced to start choosing some who were only mediocre.

Did my team win that afternoon?  No.  Did we have fun?  Yes.  We had more fun before we took the field than our opponents had all afternoon.

The next day I chose Stewart first again and continued to choose someone unlikely on every round.  Same thing the next day and the day after.  By the end of the week, a group of ugly ducklings had stopped dreading the choosing-up ritual and had started looking forward to our afternoon games.  No longer outcasts, they started thinking of themselves as my regulars, and though we never won a game, we had spirit.  We were a team and we loved playing together.

At the end of the two-week session Stewart brought his parents over to meet me.  They said with surprise that for the first time, he actually seemed to have enjoyed camp that year, and they were very pleased.  I didn't tell them what had made the difference.  I met a lot of surprised parents that summer, parents who had dropped off ugly ducklings and were picking up swans.

We are all unborn swans, and have within us the power to be swans and to create swans.  A caring schoolteacher or a physician who is unafraid of showing unconditional love can be a mirror in which students or patients discover their own beauty.  I've had patients call me asking for Jack Kevorkian's phone number.  When they learned they were swans, they found self-love, repaired relationships, and cured their diseases.

Among the topics Siegel
covers are how to find
peace of mind; how to
love, encourage, and
forgive other people
as well as yourself;
and how to thrive in bad
times and survive the
good times. For those
ready to be uplifted by
the soothing repetition
of time-tested homilies,
Siegel delivers the goods.

More on self-love.


When we don't love ourselves unconditionally, the limited, judgmental,
conditional love we give ourselves is all we have to give anyone.
When we see ourselves as flawed, we also see others as flawed.



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