Being aware of one’s own faults

I saw the Ben Stiller film Greenberg (2010) recently. It is not your typical Stiller comedy. In fact, it is not a comedy at all, more a drama as he plays a neurotic and self-centered person recovering from a nervous breakdown returning from New York to his roots in California and trying to connect with his old friends and society and having a rough time doing so.

It is not a film that I can recommend but there was one scene towards the end that was interesting. The Stiller character asks an old friend what their mutual friends say about him. His friend initially demurs, knowing that such revelations rarely end up well. But Stiller’s character insists and the friend tells him. What he says is consistent with what we, the audience, have been observing about Stiller but they come as an unpleasant surprise to him and he rejects them as total mischaracterizations.

This is why you should never ask people to honestly reveal what others say about you in your absence, and avoid eavesdropping or doing any other things that might lead you to learn this, unless you are prepared to be surprised, saddened, and even shocked.

It is not that most of us think we are perfect. We all have some sense of our own good points and bad points. While we may hope that the bad ones are not too obvious to others, if someone were to point out our bad qualities, that would not be pleasant but we would likely be able to deal with it. The problem is that it may be what we think of as our good points that come back to us as bad ones.

For example, what we may think of as our refreshing frankness and honesty may be perceived by others as insensitivity or meanness or even cruelty. We may think of ourselves as good conversationalists but others may see us as too opinionated or talking too much or dominating. We may think that we are merely reserved or respecters of other people’s privacy but they may see us as secretive, distant, uncaring, or incurious. We may think that we are helping others by sharing information with them while others may see us as annoying pedants, trying to impress others with our erudition.

It is hard to change other people’s perceptions of us once they have been formed. What we can do is remember that when other people seem to behave in a manner that is annoying to us and we wonder why they do not realize how obnoxious they are being, they may actually see what they are doing as a good thing. Understanding why they behave the way they do may enable us to tolerate them better.

It is not easy for us to be self-aware of our faults. The poet Robert Burns wrote in To A Louse:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion

Unfortunately for Burns’s hope, since there is no god to give us this gift, it is up to us to make the effort to free us from our own foolish notions.

As a footnote, I had always assumed that the ‘giftie’ in the poem was referring to god (as the giver of gifts) and that Pow’r was simply the word ‘power’ and meant ‘ability’ in this context, capitalized according to some obscure rules of early Scottish grammar. But the writer of the above link where I got the poem says that it is the capitalized Pow’r that refers to god. But then what would ‘giftie’ mean?

I suppose the first two lines could be read to mean to wish (‘O wad’) that some God ‘(Pow’r’) give (‘gie’) us the gift (‘giftie’) to see ourselves as others see us, but the syntax seems a bit off then.

Any Scot or Burns scholar out there who can shed some light on this?


  1. Erasmus says

    Oh would some power the gift give us
    To see ourselves as others see us
    It would from many a blunder free us
    And foolish notion

    As I understand it. The slightly odd syntax is required by the rhyme scheme and Power does indeed refer to God or something supernatural.

  2. Dunc says

    Aye, that’s bang on, Erasmus.

    Remember, it’s poetry. Nobody normally pronounces “symmetry” to rhyme with “eye” either, no matter what Blake wrote.

  3. SherryH says

    The way I read it, if it were written in modern English instead of dialect:

    Oh, would some Power the gift give us
    To see ourselves as others see us
    It would from many a blunder free us
    And foolish notion

    In other words,

    “Oh, if only some power would give us the gift
    to see ourselves as others see us,
    it would free us from many a blunder
    and foolish notion.”

    But of course, that doesn’t scan nearly as well! Also, I’m not sure if Power refers to God, some random higher power, or some force of nature, but I don’t think it matters too much in parsing the meaning of the lines.

    Disclaimer: I’m neither a Scots speaker nor a Burns scholar, but I think I’ve caught the gist of the verse there. Looking forward to seeing other replies.

  4. josh says

    Note that traditional hierarchies of angels include Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. So Power could be used as a title for a specific type of supernatural agent, although I’m pretty sure it’s being used here as a general reference to the power or agency of God.

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