Monday, March 29, 2010

I'll Fetch You To An Understandin'

In the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, there is, you might remember, a scene at a New Year's party. Prompted by the singing of Auld Lang Syne, Harry says that he never really understood what the song meant: "I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot?' Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?".

I had a similar moment just this week past, when a friend said something to me, then added the well-known expression: "God helps those who help themselves."

Now, I confess that I have never understood what this meant, and in fact have been misinterpreting it, while occasionally wondering how the meaning I took from it seemed to sit uncomfortably with the generally unctious, moral sentiment of most other proverbs and maxims ('too many cooks spoil the child,' 'spare the rod and spoil the broth,' etc.)

I thought that "God helps those who help themselves" means something like this: "So she helped herself to a fistful of quarters from the collection plate." Or: "when the butler passed round a big crate of grenades, Jimmy helped himself to half a dozen."

Instead, it seems to mean rather: 'God helps those who pull themselves up, rather than languishing and moaning.'

Well, I kind of like both interpretations...

In other news, it is not yet April, and already this year I seem to have lost two people whom I considered good friends. Inappropriately, I'll quote Auld Lang Syne, seeing as this posting is about misinterpretation.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.