Old Friends and New Perspectives
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?”
Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne?”
At the end of the movie When Harry Met Sally, the title characters have an epiphany at a New Year’s Eve Party with “Auld Lang Syne” playing in the background.
Harry says, “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, should old acquaintance be forgot? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean that if we happen to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?”
Sally isn’t sure but replies, “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
If you only know the movie through its infamous fake orgasm scene, it’s a romantic comedy that has Sally and Harry meeting in 1977 at the University of Chicago and follows them to New York until 1989, the year of the film’s release. But the message is deeper than women fake orgasms and boy meets girl.
It is, in a loose way, similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel that she initially entitled First Impressions, for both Harry and Sally make poor first impressions on each other that kind of stick, and each has something to learn from the other—just as Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy do.
First impressions are important, of course, especially for a social species like humans. And sometimes our gut reactions are spot on. Any time our instincts signal to us that someone is dangerous, we should trust that.
Sometimes, though, we equate actions with identity in ways that get us stuck. We fail to recognize a moment as a moment and turn it into a defining moment.
A Harvard study found that people generally acknowledged how much they had changed in the past but tended to grossly underestimate how much they will change in the future. The participants saw their current identity, no matter what their age, as a stable one, a sort of end game that previous change had brought them to permanently. However, the evidence—their own reading of their own lives as filled with change—predicts that they will continue to change.
Long-term relationships change because the people within them change, but if we stubbornly hold on to first impressions and our idea of someone’s stable identity—which does not exist—we will feel threatened by those inevitable changes.
I don’t know if Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns had any of this in mind as he wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, and he didn’t intend it to become a New Year’s anthem. That came about in the nineteenth century in Scotland and in North America in the early twentieth century thanks to Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo.
But I can see why it’s the perfect ending to When Harry Met Sally and a beautifully symbolic song as we end a year and begin a new one.
We should not forgot our acquaintance—our loved ones, our friends, our family—but we should begin anew with them also. We need to allow ourselves and all those we love to change and grow and potentially become very different from the people who made that first impression.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, ““If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing.” To force someone into a script we wrote at our first meeting is a kind of killing.
Let each of us as the clock strikes midnight (assuming, unlike me, you can stay up that late) look at our “auld acquaintance” with fresh perspective and new appreciation. And, given our isolation in 2020 moving on into the beginning of 2021, if you are only looking at the mirror at your own lovely face, give yourself that right attention that you deserve.
Happy blessed, beautiful, love-filled, healthy New Year to all of you!