Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” That’s the way I feel about plans for self-improvement. Things go swimmingly for ten minutes but then real life happens and you quickly revert to the old plan-less you. There seems to be a state that you naturally lapse into that we sometimes try to escape from but habit, like gravity, always pulls us back.
I think people are capable of change but we are changed when things happen to us, not because we decide to change. For example, you might decide to value your friends and family more when you think that most of them will die within the next couple of decades. So you start trying to appreciate them more and it works until you get tired and bored of remembering to appreciate them, which is when you go back to being your old self. It seems that people actually have to die before you stop taking them for granted. Imagining them dead just doesn’t have the same effect.
There are other dangers to these plans for self-improvement. You may, for example, decide to become more tolerant and understanding towards people. The next day, as part of your plan to be more easy-going, you meekly acquiesce as someone pushes in front of you in a queue. Even so, the truth is that such ‘tolerance and understanding’ is indistinguishable from cowardice and passivity. Acting according to some blanket principle of tolerance rather than the nuanced reactions of your gut feeling is like exchanging a fine tool for a sledge hammer. The quick and dirty reactions of your evolved instincts are often smarter than smug Olympian aloofness.
Barack Obama appears to prefer Olympian aloofness while Vladimir Putin prefers quick and dirty. Obama tells the world that Putin is on the wrong side of history when Russian troops roll into the Crimea. He insults Putin by telling him he is so 19th century. Putin couldn’t care less. He ends up with the Crimea and in all likelihood other parts of the Ukraine too. Quite how this puts Putin on the wrong side of history is not clear.
Just as an aside, I personally don’t think Putin’s argument regarding Russian intervention in the Ukraine stands up to scrutiny. He says he is safeguarding the lives and interests of ethnic Russians who live there. Yet this would be like Pakistan annexing Bradford, Leicester and Luton so as to safeguard the interests of ethnic Pakistanis. Or Turkey invading Kreuzberg in Berlin. Nations simply don’t do that. Unless, of course, they are allowed to by people who wish to think themselves tolerant and understanding.
Obama may well have had a beautifully thought-out plan but after getting punched in the face by Putin that plan quickly dissolved into thin air.