Sunday, 25 January 2009

An honest Burns Night.

I've actually never been to a proper Burns Night. I think it would be fun, though I draw the line at meaty haggis. Veggie haggis is actually really quite good, so I don't feel the need to eat too many innards. Even if it's slightly against my principles to waste parts of any animal. I come up against an ick factor too strong there. If you're curious about the actual content of a haggis, try this though (Guardian picture gallery with amusing captions, not too gruesome I promise!).

I also feel that at some stage I should try and read some Robert Burns, rather than just the famous stuff. The poem below is one of the famous ones, often sung or recited after the meal. The sentiment is sort of the hackneyed 'poor but happy' one that can be rather unpleasant in the wrong circumstances. Burns avoids the patronising tone by refocusing the idea on 'poor but honest', which is much less unpleasant.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

If you're after the more unintelligible Scots, try here. It's not perfect, but it should allow the sense of the poem to come through.

I like the pragmatism that comes across in this poem. It celebrates a independence of mind, common sense and self-respect as those qualities that make a man. The implication in the poem is that being a man (read, 'human') as hard as you can is the height to which we must aspire. I like the note that a prince can make a duke or a lord or whatever, but he can't make an honest man; that comes from somewhere else. It comes from the inside, and that is more powerful than the most outwardly powerful man in the world.

Honesty is important to me. The more things that happen, the more I believe that. I've had conversations about this several times recently. Some people suggest that hiding things from people for their own benefit is to be valued. I can see the logic. It's one that says, if you really care for this person, you will save them pain as far as possible; you will bear whatever it is for them. But this only works if you have faith in your ability to keep things to yourself and your ability to deal quietly with the ball of knowing that inevitably grows the more you don't talk about it. I'm hopeless at keeping secrets, and hate for other people to be keeping things from me - if I suspect there is something there, and I'm good at picking things like that up, I will needle until I know, even if it might be bad for me. It also depends a bit on the nature of the secret. If it's something that's going to fester, or that won't sort itself out on its own, then hiding is no help. Easy to say; damn near impossible to do. It's taken me a very long time to learn, in my bones rather than in my mind, that it really is better to find that way of sharing, no matter how hard the search might be, because otherwise the mass of the secret gets so large it completely blocks out everything else and there is no way forward. Relationshipness. Difficult.

I think that hiding things, in work, in relationships, creates suspicion - because anyone perceptive will sense something hidden, and anyone curious will try and find it out. And they might find out the wrong thing in the wrong way. At least if one does the telling oneself, one can make sure that things are put in the right way, and no details are confused. I think it saves worry in the future. If there is something that requires lying about or hiding, then it is something wrong, with virtually no exceptions. Keeping things from people for the purposes of surprising them and fun and whatever is entirely different. That goes for honesty with oneself, too - if there is an issue that has to be not thought about, then there is something to think about. Avoiding the issue does not make it go. This is something I have yet to teach myself, properly.

It's kind of hard to explain it. The level at which honesty is important to me goes very deep, and it's always hard to fit words around deep things. It's something that I remember my dad telling me in a 'lessons for life' kind of way. Not patronising or pompously, just telling me because he felt it was an important thing to say. If you're honest with the people around you, and with yourself, then you can't go too far wrong. Yorkshireman.

The importance I give to honesty feeds my need to share quite as much as I do with all sorts of people. I should perhaps do less of that, because other people think it's odd and sometimes intimidating. I did hide things, for a very long time, and all I found it achieved was pain of various sorts, so this is part of trying something else. But there's something about having no qualms about telling people things about myself, because it feeds an honest impression about me in their eyes, and because they're things that I have looked at for myself and feel comfortable about, I guess. That, and I appear to have had a fairly dramatic life over the last six or so years. Not stupidly so, in the context of some of the horrendous things that happen in the world, but enough I hope to have come to an understanding with myself about what is important and what can't hurt to share. And the more that people share of themselves, the better we will all understand one another and the more we can help one another. This is the number one reason, for example, for discussing mental illness and depression. It should be so much less of a taboo, because if more people were able to talk about their experiences then fewer people would feel alone in their pain, and the world would be a better place.

This post is preachy. I'm sorry if that's really how it's coming across. I'm more intending it as an interrogation of something I deeply feel. I'm not trying to convert anyone else to the same beliefs, though I am trying to explain myself a bit. Probably to myself more than anybody else.


  1. Well said. Well said indeed. Sometimes I think the world can be divided in half that way: Those who are willing to hurt you with honesty and those who, unwilling, hurt you with deception. In fact, we often lie to ourselves to try to be happy, to try to be something we're not. It rarely works. I wonder if it is those lies becoming personal truths that changes who we are on some level.

    Food for thought: "Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else."
    Judy Garland

  2. Assimilating the lies into your own persona is the difficult bit. You pretend for so long that eventually you believe them, too, but somehow there's always an uncertainty. It's uncomfortable. A stone in a shoe. Better, if you can, to look at the lie one aspires to (checking it's worth the effort) and the way one might actually be, and work out how big the gap is. Once the real feeling is known, it's sort of easier to behave in a different way if necessary. That's where I was trying to get to with honesty of self.

    And that Judy Garland quote is great - I haven't heard it before. Being someone else is hard work and no fun except to visit. It's even worse if you're being somebody else for somebody else. That's a compromise I've concluded never to make in a relationship again. It won't be worth it - I want to be myself for someone else, because that is the best thing for me to be, rather than being the someone else that someone else wants from me. So much of the time people don't seem to know that that's what they're asking, and it's part of the root of incompatibility in relationships. This is a different conversation now... :-)

  3. There's a difference between lying to yourself about who you are and what you want and aspiring to be a better, more refined version of yourself. I did catch that bit, actually. More interesting is the fact that you're wrong, it's actually the same conversation.