The band strikes up the tune every New Year’s Eve as glasses clink and streamers fly. “Auld Lang Syne,” we sing, usually not knowing what it means or why we sing it. I’m not sure knowing what it means would make us want to sing it this year.
Based on a poem by the Scottish bard Robert Burns, auld lang syne translates as “old times since,” “old times gone” or, more loosely, “for old times’ sake.”
It begins with a rhetorical question: “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?”
The poem waxes nostalgic about things friends have shared, such as running in the hills, picking flowers, paddling boats and imbibing a pint together. The newness that adding a number to the year promises shouldn’t eclipse the memory of the good things behind us.
All good and fair in principle, yet 2020! This past year of coronavirus has affected every personal relationship, every social engagement and every business, entertainment, education and government enterprise. Yes, there have been benefits. Families have had more time around the dinner table together, couples have tasted sweeter intimacy and people have taken a sweeping inventory of their lives to see what should stay and what should go.
But the downsides linger. We start with the obvious: more than 125,000 infections and 1,250 lives lost to the virus in Dallas County alone. The medical community is overstressed, especially frontline nurses and doctors treating COVID-19 in hospitals. Loneliness is pervasive among singles and the elderly living alone or in assisted living facilities. Jobs have disappeared as businesses fail or flail. School-age children have missed a year of optimal learning. Religious congregations have gone virtual and wonder when they will regather or what will be left of them when they do. The forced closeness of some relationships has led to increased domestic violence. The most hard-hit communities are the poorest. While the link is only intuitive, the spike in Dallas homicides coincides on the map.
So, good riddance to the year past. But the other reason not to sing “Auld Lang Syne” this New Year’s Eve is that the coronavirus that began in 2019 and became a scourge in 2020 will be with us well into the new year. Vaccines are on the way, but the chances of getting back to normal any time in 2021 are remote. We can pray for progress, but it will take more than two shots to cure what ails us.
We need to (re)build trust in this new year—trust in civil servants, elected officials, public health experts, media sources and people who voted differently from us. Let’s look for unlikely allies instead of unsuspecting enemies. We’ve got work to do to restore community.
The last stanza of “Auld Lang Syne” is worth recalling, along with the chorus: “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give me a hand o’ thine! … We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
OK, let’s sing that.