Today, 25th January, is Burns Night, which, unlike St Andrew’s Day, is celebrated just as much back home in Scotland as it is by the diaspora. Especially in the west and south-west, where I grew up. The first poems I learned to recite in primary school were Burns’ poems, and it was at inter-school Burns Suppers that I developed my public speaking skills.
Around this date, we mark the birthday of our national bard (poet), Robert Burns (1759-1796) with the traditional Burns Supper of haggis, neeps and tatties. (Unless you’re living in Congo, in which case it’s haggies, tatties, and whichever vegetable you happen to have around.)
With the meal, there is of course a dram or two, along with performances of his songs or readings of his poems, and, at the more formal events, a series of speeches following a traditional format.
Even if you haven’t heard of Robert Burns before, you’ve surely heard his words. He influenced John Steinbeck, whose novel Of Mice and Men comes from a line in Burns’ ‘To A Mouse’: “…the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.”* ‘My Love is Like a Red Red Rose’ is one of his best-known songs, the most famous being ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
He was a Romantic poet from a working class background whose words were sincere and direct, addressing universal human experiences.
I could recite you just about all of ‘To A Mouse’ today (having come third in the P7 Burns Recital competition c1985) and a few chunks of ‘Tam O’Shanter’. I’d rather be singing ‘John Anderson My Jo’ but that’s probably best left to Eddi Reader.
Having said all that, my very favourite line from Robert Burns is from another poem, ‘To A Louse’, in which Burns watches a louse crawling over the Sunday-best bonnet of a lady in the kirk (church). He reflects, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / to see oursels as others see us!’**
The lady with the ribbons and lace on her head, making her best show of devotion in the church, did not imagine her image being tainted by a grubby parasite. I used to keep a postcard on my bedroom wall of a piece of contemporary art, depicting the earth as a blue and green ball of rubbish, seen from space, called ‘To See Ourselves as Other See Us’.
It’s a cautionary tale from Burns, reminding us not to set too much store in the image we present of ourselves, because ultimately, the perspective that comes from distance is more truthful. It’s a liberating idea, in the age of selfies. If all we care about is how we look to others, through which filters we present ourselves, then there’s not much to hold on to when the real world comes along to spoil it. He says, if only we had that gift, we’d be freed from “…foolish notions…airs in dress an’ gait…”
It’s liberating, to let go of the perfect profile pic depiction of ourselves and let the truth hang out.
But for me, more than that, I find it comforting. If I really think about how others see me, well then the perspective that distance offers is more probably far more generous than I allow myself. If I were to ask my friends what they honestly thought of me I’m sure they would say absolutely none of the following: tummy too big, starting to look her age, not-a-perfect parent, scruffy, domestically disorganised, a show-off, selfish, overreaching.
Nope, that’s all just me.
Among the flaws they would certainly observe (I hope I know what they are), my friends might say: intelligent, thoughtful, confident, a good speaker, talented, creative, a good parent and, yes, a good writer. Why do I think they would say those things? Because they’ve said them to me, at various times. Why do I believe them? Well, why would they lie? At best, it’s their truth. At worst, it’s a lie they want me to believe. So I will.
My five-year-old says I have the best tummy in the world, by the way. Truth.
When I’m beating myself up, and I think of those words, with their steady, clear rhythm, so I can see myself as others see me. Thanks Rabbie.
Try it yourself. Be liberated.