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'To see oursels'

The poet Burns once cried out, in that execrable English of his, "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as others see us!" And indeed there is no denying that it would be salutary for our souls if we more often did, as he suggested, stand back and take a look at ourselves from a distance.

For it is curious, considering that we live so closely to ourselves, how we persist in believing we are absolutely lovable through and through. Of course we say we are horrid, we say that if others knew the baseness of our thoughts they would never speak to us again, but 90 percent of the time we do not mean it. Even if we honestly admit to being nasty on occasions, what we will never admit to being is dull.

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When, wishing for a quiet weekend, we creep past the Carlingtons' cottage, bent double and jumping from one grass tussock to another for fear that the sound of our brogues on the road or the sight of our heads over the delphiniums might bring them rushing out with glad cries and instant invitations, it never seems to occur to us that the Carlingtons, having heard a pebble fly or seen a flash of tweed through their hedge, may too be crouching low, may indeed be lying on their faces behind the sofa or hiding in cupboards under the stairs in case we should see them through the window and invite them over for a meal. The idea simply never enters our heads.

Sometimes, if we are in a hurry, we discreetly cross the street to avoid meeting Admiral Bunting, who has all the buttonholing proclivities of the Ancient Mariner, or we dart into a shop to get away from the verbose Mrs. Spooner. But when other acquaintances, who are coming along the street toward us, suddenly disappear, that surely is coincidental? it is obvious they cannot have seen us coming. It just isn't conceivable that they should be reluctant to meet us, is it? Or is it?

That everybody must be automatically pleased to see one is an assumption that dies hard; yes, even though life often teaches one little lessons in the virtue and practice of humility.

I recall the occasion when I took some friends to look at another friend's garden. She would be away, she said, but please do come, the peonies are at their prime. So we went to look at this garden, and in the farthest corner of it where the stinging nettles met the compost heap, we came upon my friend, sitting on the ground in a cloud of midges reading "Pride and Prejudice." After all, she said, blushing hugely, she had not gone away. Where she obviously had gone, however, was into hiding. Rather than face us. The shock was terrific.

Sometimes I worry about some elderly cousins of mine because I do not go and visit them as often as I should. They weigh like lead on my conscience and I am wont to lie awake at night reproving myself for my selfishness. But I must say I have never bothered to find out whether they actually wantm to see me. I take it for granted they do.* I mean, who doesn't?

By the same token it never occurs to me that the generation of cousins following me are racked with remorse because they so rarely come to visit me.m I cannot bring myself to believe they are often urging themselves and each other to go and visit "poor old cousin Virginia." For surely I am highly entertaining, not to say utterly charming?

All the same, where are they?


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