As others see us

Mark-Sherman SQUAREWriter’s note: Though I generally write humorous columns in this space, at this time of year I typically do one that is serious. So please try to get yourself into a thoughtful and reflective mood as you read what follows, even though I may not be able to help myself from throwing in a little humor.


Robert Burns, the great 18th-century Scottish poet and songwriter, not only wrote the words of “Auld Lang Syne,” but also the famous line, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay.” (No matter how well we plan, things may go wrong.) And another one he is famous for is, in the original Scottish, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!” Or, in modern English, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

This comes from a poem with the unlikely title of “To a Louse,” apparently inspired by Burns seeing a louse crawling on the bonnet of an upper class woman dressed to the hilt (the woman, not the louse). The main point of the poem, and those timeless words, is how good it would be for us to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Here is someone walking around like she is queen of the world, and there is a louse crawling on her bonnet. What a gift it would be, says Burns, to realize how we look to others, how silly pretension is, and how we are all just vulnerable and equal human beings. (The next line of the poem shows this clearly; it has been translated as “It would save us from many mistakes and foolish thoughts.”)


I don’t know about you, but my problem has not been that I’ve walked around with a bonnet on my head, imagining all the world thinks I’m just something special. Rather, it’s more often been the opposite. I’ve felt that I haven’t accomplished enough in my life, haven’t done as well in my work as I could have, and have not been a good enough husband, father, or friend. But one thing I’ve done to try to help me feel better about myself is to try to see myself as others see me.

How do I know how others see me? I don’t, of course, but every once in a while I’ll get a glimpse. I was a college teacher for more than 25 years. I thought I did well at it, but I never won any awards. And as the years after my retirement went by, I wondered: Was I all that good? But every so often someone will tell me they remember hearing that I was a very good teacher. (What is really great is when a student I had 30 or more years ago tells me I was one of her best teachers, or that I made a real difference in his life.)

Or perhaps in my life outside the classroom someone will tell me how helpful I was to them, when I didn’t even realize it. (And this has included my family and friends.)

All of this seeing myself as others see me doesn’t swell my ego; it simply helps me feel better about myself. And my guess is that far more people need this kind of ego-enhancement than need ego-reduction.

One of the messages I have gotten from my own feelings about these positive comments is that I should always let people know when I appreciate something they have done or when I have heard others say good things about them. Remember this: No one is going to read his or her own obituary; if you’ve got something good to say to someone, say it now.

And finally, there is a two-word sentence I’d suggest you say to yourself several times throughout your day. Its meaning includes letting other people know how good they are and a lot more. It’s always at the top of my “to do” list.

But it’s gonna cost you to find out what it is.

Just kidding! It’s “Be nice.” It could be “Be kind” or “Be thoughtful,” but that simple word “nice” captures all of that.

Years ago I took a stand-up comedy workshop in New York City. The teacher talked a lot about how you come across on stage, and how you could do anything as long as the audience sensed that you were, deep down, a good and loving person. He specifically mentioned Don Rickles, the most famous of all “insult comics.” Rickles is well-known for pretty much “insulting” everyone, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity. But I put the word “insulting” in quotes, because, as our teacher told us, people see that Rickles is a decent and loving guy. (I saw him perform in Las Vegas a few years ago, when he was 82, and he was amazing.)

So there you have it, my holiday message. Please don’t take it to mean that as long as you’re a good person, you can have fun throwing around insults; the comedy stage is not the same as everyday life. But do realize that just as you appreciate so many other people, so too do they appreciate you. And they’ll keep appreciating you as long as you are nice (kind, thoughtful, etc.).

That said, it still might be appropriate to let people know (as gently as possible) when they are making fools of themselves. If I’m going on and on about something and you see a louse crawling around on my hat, please tell me!

All kidding aside, happy holidays to everyone, and may you have a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year!