As Others See Us

It’s a big week for Scotland. Burns Night falls this week, on Thursday, when many Scots will serve up the traditional Burns Supper and celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns, who famously wrote in the Scots dialect. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, but events will run throughout the week. I’ve no supper to go to this week, so my way of marking the event has been to read (and try to understand) some of his work.

Carved into the exterior wall of the Scottish Parliament, in a section of wall facing onto the Canongate, is a selection of quotes from great Scottish authors and poets. Of course, Burns is there, taking prominent position, pride of place, with an excerpt from the wince-inducing titled: ‘To A Louse (on seeing one in a lady’s bonnet at church)’. Reportedly, Burns was inspired to write the poem when he saw a louse wandering (unbeknownst to her) in a lady’s bonnet. The image draws forth the insight that each of us is no more or less important than the other, despite how we might view ourselves. The words in stone read: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us / It wad frae monie a blunder free us / An’ foolish notion / What airs in dress as’ gait wad lea’e us / An’ ev’n Devotion.” Or, in modern English, “Wouldn’t it be great if God gave us the gift of being able to see ourselves the way others see us? It would save us from making daft mistakes and having foolish thoughts. We would change how we present ourselves – our looks, gestures, pretentions – and how we apply our time and attention.” Well, there’s a big ask! I wonder if it gets you thinking as it has me.

How do we see ourselves? And how far removed is it from how others see us? The person we project out onto the world and the person inside is – as the cliché goes – are often two different people. And I think Burns is telling us that the outside world isn’t so easily duped. If we apply a little perception and wit, we can often cut through an act and come to see the real person quite quickly. My reading of Burns’ lines is: sometimes we lose our real self in having to act out a role that just isn’t you, that you are taken down a road of silly mistakes, daft thoughts, thus leading to lack of fulfilment. I think, more often than not, we are more hard and judgmental on ourselves than anyone else would be. Our foolish thoughts might be those of not feeling good enough, clever enough, pretty or handsome enough, and – if on the odd occasion we do something we are proud of – we tend to dismiss it with, “sure it was nothing much”. The ‘self-praise-is-no-praise’ maxim is so firmly drummed into us that it seems like puffed-up pride to say you’ve shone at something. As a ten-year old I know says, “nobody likes a boaster!” However, I think that Burns is basically imploring us to stop being blind to ourselves: whether it is our pretentions, airs, conceits and affectations, or our goodness, talents, passions and interests. I think he’s telling us not to thoughtlessly give our time and attention to those things we think we ‘ought’ to do, but to wake up and free ourselves from believeing certain things are below us, or that we are not good enough for other things.

Is it worth asking others how they see us? It would have to be someone you trust and someone you know who cares for you who, so if they had to tell you something hard to hear, they could do so with kindness. Different countries have different cultures, and maybe in our culture there is a certain embarrassment in telling people something marvellous about themselves. Many will never hear in their lifetime the good things that others see in them as often it all comes too late – like a eulogy at a funeral. So if you are apt to put a brave face on it, fake it till you make it, and cry the tears of clown when you get home to your own four walls, give yourself a break and wake up to all that is good about you. Or, if you think that the bus is beneath you and you must get a taxi, that you wouldn’t be caught dead in B&M Bargains and that your neighbour’s unkempt garden is a blight on the street, as they’d say in Northern Ireland, ‘catch yourself on’ and remember that the louse doesn’t care how important (you think) you are!

Correction: My Edinburgh Press is not usually in the business of issuing corrections. Not that MEP claims to be right about all things; rather, MEP merely expresses a range of opinions that I am more than happy for you to discard. However, it has come to my attention that, in yesterday’s blog (‘Happy Birthday’ 22.01.18), I branded D. as proponent of the Jungian school and it is my duty to correct the error and point out that he is, in fact, a disciple of Freud.

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