Friday, January 4, 2013
I am once again led to reflect on the phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions. On the one hand, these reflect a recognition on our part that we are not everything that we would like to be. There are things about us that are not quite right, that don’t quite work, that could use some improvement. If there is anyone alive on this planet today who doesn’t think that this applies to them, I would say that their major flaw is a lack of insight.
This lack of perfection is a good thing. I have always thought that perfection would more or less equal stagnation. This striving to change and, hopefully, improve ourselves is one of the great dynamisms that drives us forward, as individuals and as a society. Perhaps it is not always forward; but this process will always be fraught with risks and mistakes.
Yet at the same time, both as individuals and as a society, old patterns of behaviour and belief are very difficult to change. The changes that we do achieve are often fairly superficial. I know, within myself, that I constantly repeat thought patterns and, as a consequence, behaviours, from which I long to extricate myself. We are ultimately creatures of habit. I do not know the physiology behind this, but I suspect that many of the neural pathways in our brain become quite fixed and strongly reinforced. Our energy is constantly directed down these pathways, making it very difficult to change. We are addicted to our thought and behaviour patterns. At the level of society, there is a huge inertia that makes change enormously difficult; which is why it often takes major upheavals, crises or catastrophes to bring about significant change. Perhaps this is also true of us as individuals.
I do believe that we can change. But even when we have succeeded in changing, at moments of weakness and tiredness we can still fall back into the old patterns. Those old pathways remain in place, and our energy is easily diverted back into them when the going gets tough.
Once again, one of the key issues here is awareness. Even if we are unsuccessful at making the changes that we want to make, even if, sometimes, we slip back into the old patterns at moments of weakness, the key is to be aware of this process. The real danger is that we follow these patterns of behaviour unknowingly, or perhaps even deceive ourselves about their existence or their deleterious effects. This seems to me to be one of the big problems at both the level of the individual and society: denial. I have spoken before about my over-developed “self-consciousness”, this process of standing outside myself and observing and evaluating. The positive side of this is that I am often painfully aware of my failures. This does not always help me to overcome them. But at least I don’t fool myself that they don’t exist (except, of course, for those failures and weaknesses that I, too, still manage to hide from myself).