As is so often the case with old songs, the middle verses bear the greater load of meaningful content (and are also, incidentally, the first forgotten.)
As I returned to my favorite holiday traditions over the last couple weeks, I fell again under the spell of “Auld Lang Syne.” It has always seemed to me a perfect song, with words and melody bound together so tightly as to be inextricable, like soul and body.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?”
The phrase from which the song draws its title, preserved in the lyrics’ original Scots language, is often translated as “long, long ago” or “old long since.” I completely approve of those who left the phrase “auld lang syne” untampered in the modern English version. The wooden translations do violence to the phrase. Even at the phonetic level, the Scots “auld lang syne” seems to carry a vernacular charm, rolling off the tongue like fog from the highlands.
How can we celebrate “picking daisies fine” alongside wearisome wandering, or raise a glass to paddling streams together alongside our estrangement across broad seas?
For anyone who thinks “Auld Lang Syne” was written specifically for the final cathartic minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” however, these translations do provide a helpful entry point for understanding the song’s history and legacy.
Composed by the poet Robert Burns in the second half of the 18th century, the song rapidly gained popularity across the English speaking lands. It eventually took its place among standard New Year’s Eve festivities, encouraging eager party-goers to reflect upon the year coming to a close before celebrating the year to come.
The song goes on:
We two have run about the hills,
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot
Since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.
As is so often the case with old songs, the middle verses bear the greater load of meaningful content (and are also, incidentally, the first forgotten.) The song’s first two stanzas, paired by a celebratory chorus, seem fit for a cheerful Scottish pub, where members of a merry chorus offer each other winks and drinks for the sake of the “good ol’ days.” Now the song seems to take an odd turn by offering two verses in which a childhood memory is followed up by the admission of some painful reality. This pairing could be taken to communicate a recognition of the balance between happy and sad elements of the past.
When our experiences are understood as the setting and not the entire story, when they no longer need to define our ultimate value, they are utterly transfigured.
I think it more likely, however, that the song intentionally moves from a positive note to the negative in order to emphasize how the passage of time often coincides with increased hardship. These middle verses acknowledge the reality of sad memories, while insisting on an immediate return to the chorus and its famous affirmation of times “auld lang syne.”
This unflinching and abrupt transition from sad recollection to celebratory affirmation indicates that this old song can tell us something significant about what it means to remember. By extension, it gives us a clue as to how we should make sense of our experiences more generally.
We are at the end of a year during which our mettle has been tested repeatedly by onslaughts of anxiety, loneliness, sickness and social upheaval. If you are like me, all of these things discourage reflection on the past. Because I had never before experienced these kinds of difficulties for such a sustained period, I found examining the last nine months uniquely challenging.
Before this year, reflecting on the past usually amounted to taking an inventory of my happy and sad moments, the ups and the downs, before moving on at the soonest opportunity to declare that “all in all, I have a lot to be grateful for.”
“Auld Lang Syne” points us to relationship as that alone which makes our memories worth celebrating.
I have nothing against maintaining a sense of gratitude. Insofar as we have experienced earthly blessings, it is right and good for us to be grateful for those gifts.
However, if we limit our reflection to this sort of exercise, to focusing only on the good, I believe we place ourselves in a precarious position. Why? Suppose that the year on which we are reflecting has been as hard as this last one. What happens when our pain appears to outweigh our pleasure?
Furthermore, what are we to do when we realize that our difficulties carry right up to the present and seem far from abating? In each of these cases, we are forced to realize that if we fail to find meaning in both pleasurable and painful memories, we will not gain the solace we desire. When we are confronted with the pervasiveness of our pain, we realize that the type of reflection that amounts to placing pleasurable and painful experiences on a scale only proves helpful for those who don’t need help. If we only find value in pleasurable memories, then that can only help people whose experience is predominated by pleasurable memories.
Additionally, in troubled times, many of us fall back on the refrain: “Well, it could have been worse.” This is nothing but the sullen sister of the first “platitude of gratitude,” as it too relies on relative thinking. But instead of weighing good against bad and coming to the conclusion that we have a lot to be thankful for, we are weighing one bad against another. Things are hard. They could have been harder.
Both statements leave us wanting. They imply that life is fundamentally a condition that is either bad or worse. This kind of thinking hardly promises the kind of positive affirmation of life that most of us are after when we reflect on our past.
There is, though, another approach. If we accept that our pleasurable and painful experiences do not comprise the totality of our lives, but are merely the setting within which our story has been playing out, then all of our experiences suddenly have the capacity to become meaningful. Life is pain and life is joy, yes, but pain and joy contain a deeper meaning. Like the plot of land in Christ’s parable where a treasure has been buried, our experiences are precious when viewed in light of some underlying value. Our experiences are not what define meaning; they are merely the soil from which we can uncover meaning.
This old song can tell us something significant about what it means to remember.
When our experiences are understood as the setting and not the entire story, when they no longer need to define our ultimate value, they are utterly transfigured. They take on an aspect indiscriminately lovely and to be cherished. As with the individual movements of a symphony, some dominated by confident major chords and others by questioning minor strains, so also the strands of our life’s experiences can take on a persistent beauty when understood in light of a theme unifying them.
But what is this unifying theme? What is this dynamic meaning underlying our experiences both joyful and sorrowful? In the terms of the song, how can we celebrate “picking daisies fine” alongside wearisome wandering, or raise a glass to paddling streams together alongside our estrangement across broad seas? I believe Burns has something to say to this effect as well.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.