Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2011

New Year’s Eve is a time for nostalgia and regret.  It is a time for remembrance about time gone past.  It is a time for dreaming abouttomorrow.  And it is a time for that old drinking song, “Auld Lang Syne.”

We sing that song at New Year’s, even though most of us don’t really know what it’s Scottish words really mean.  The song goes: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”  Imagine raising your cup and swaying to the music, as you sing it.  The cup is raised in a toast to the old times—the “old long since,” as it might be translated.  We drink a salute to days gone by.

New Year’s Eve is for reminiscing: about both the good times and the bad.  We celebrate our new friends and mourn those we’ve lost.  We count our blessings and chew over our failures.  Along the way, we might cook up some resolutions for the next year: ways of ensuring that the future is more satisfying and less disappointing.

Life is not, of course, without disappointment.  And New Year’s Day often begins with a disillusioning hangover.  A groggy morning is the bitter-sweet remembrance of the previous night’s elation.  A hangover reminds us that no joy comes without pain.

The bleary-eyed melancholy of the morning after also reminds us that we are usually not very good at judging our own future interests. Concerns about tomorrow’s wooziness are rarely considered in deciding whether to get drunk tonight.  That is why we borrow money, overeat, and fail to plan for retirement.  If we were rational about these things, there would be no regrets.  And we would keep our New Year’s resolutions.

Mark Twain mocked this human-all-too-human tendency in a column he wrote in 1863 for the New Year’s Day edition of the Virginia City newspaper. “Now is the accepted time to make your regular good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.  Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath… Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds.”

Twain was not opposed to drinking or to smoking.  He is often pictured with a big cigar in hand.  He said, “It’s easy to quit smoking, I’ve done it a hundred times.”  Twain routinely mocked the advocates of temperance, who were lobbying to regulate alcohol consumption.  He seemed to think that drinking made it possible to deal with life’s tragedies.  He once remarked: “sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.”

Twain is not alone extolling the virtues of drink.  Human beings have been consuming alcohol and other intoxicants for millennia.  The ancient Egyptians brewed beer.  Hammurabi’s Code includes regulations for tavern owners.  And, of course, Jesus turned water into wine.

This last point is not insignificant.  The origin of religion may have something to do with intoxication.  The human mind craves varied and altered states of consciousness.  We dance, we play, we sing, and we get drunk.  And we willingly suffer from our excesses.  If the original ecstasy is great enough, we can easily accept the suffering of the morning after.

One of Plato’s most interesting works—the Symposium—represents a wine-drenched drinking party.  In fact, the Symposium takes place on the day after a previous night’s round of drinking: most of the participants are already hung-over.  The topic for discussion at this party is love.  Love is another sort of intoxication that we crave, even if it costs us significant suffering.

Plato also links love and drunkenness to wisdom. Drink loosens tongues.  It allows the artistic imagination to wander.  It helps people fall in love.  It lubricates philosophical discussions.  And it opens the memory to those days gone by.

Yes there are dangers here: drunken driving and alcoholism can both be deadly.  Some form of moderation is in order: there is a right time and a right way to get drunk.  We know that there may be hell to pay tomorrow.  But for tonight, let’s raise a cup of kindness for those days of auld lang syne.