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Take time to reflect on compassion and empathy; like Robert Burns did

By Staff Reporter

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Monday night is Burns Night. Another lockdown first, bringing Burns suppers in new forms, online and at home.

Now, I am awestruck by those who know Burns and his poetry well. But even from my inexpert perspective, I think we might learn from Robert Burns in these difficult times.

jenny adams up to date
jenny adams up to date

Crucially, a poet pays attention to what is around them, open to seeing things afresh. As we get on with life, what might we notice around us?

It might be something small (and controversial), like a louse or mouse. It may be the vulnerability of a daisy or the tentative shoots of spring. It could be the smells and textures of haggis or whisky.

All of these can engage our senses. That can bring us into the present moment, pausing stressful trains of thought. Taking a moment to be aware is a gift to ourselves.

That may be enough – or we can choose to go further. Perhaps we want to express gratitude – for colours and light, smells and tastes, sounds and sensations. That may be addressed to our creator, however, we know them, or simply a moment being grateful for life.

We could also follow Burns into deeper consideration. He’s skilled at describing what he notices.

He also goes beyond description to reflect on himself and the world. For example, compassionate observation of a mouse’s homelessness develops into insight about human plans (still ringing true in 2021).

I think we all have the potential to explore experiences more creatively. Probably not all the time – sometimes it’s good just to be in the moment, sometimes we have other demands on our time and energy. Probably not all with the skill of Robert Burns – though who knows?

So, what are we aware of, when we pay attention? Can we express that in images, sounds, stories or poetry? Does that help us understand ourselves and the times we are in? Might that help us find compassion and empathy for others?

Sometimes it might lead us to inspiration or insight. Being creative can help our wellbeing.

The 1998 Fogwatt Burns Supper is held on the 23rd of January 1998...Picture: The Northern Scot Photographic Archive ...
The 1998 Fogwatt Burns Supper is held on the 23rd of January 1998...Picture: The Northern Scot Photographic Archive ...

Perhaps we might create something we want to share with others – and there we could be inspired by Burns’ many epistles. When we all feel isolated, could you share something you’ve noticed or created with someone else, and listen to their reflections?

I’m aware Burns was also good at paying attention to other people, offering astute observations and exploring human failings. I’m not sure I’d advocate too much of that about others, or we risk the judgement and hypocrisy demonstrated in Holy Willie’s prayer. But perhaps we could occasionally accept the challenge of paying attention to our own behaviour – accepting the gift of the louse, to see oursels as ithers see us.

So how will we remember Robert Burns this year? With the great chieftain o’ the pudding-race?

With online addresses and celebrations?

Why not also learn from our poets, and pay attention to the world around us – to be present, to reflect, and to be inspired?

n Rev Jenny Adams is minister of Hopeman, Duffus and Spynie Church of Scotland. Read her column here each fortnight. Send us your Burns supper lockdown pictures or favourite Burns memories to newsdesk@northern-scot.co.uk

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