Most people have heard Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I also suspect that most took it as I did: Who can figure out that crazy nation?
So it was a real surprise when I read the entire quote: “[Russia] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Now that makes sense!
If Churchill had taken his own wisdom to mind, we might have avoided the Cold War with all of its attendant nuclear risk. But Churchill, as most people, only exercised empathy for potential adversaries when he saw an immediate advantage to himself in doing so. In this case, Churchill’s insight was part of an October 1, 1939 BBC broadcast, in which he was rallying the British people in their seemingly impossible war effort, so it helped him to note that it was in Russia’s national interest to keep Hitler at bay. (Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, fulfilling Churchill’s hope that Russia would join the fight against Nazism.)
When Churchill saw that it was in his interest to understand Russia, he did so. But when he failed to see anything in it for him, Russia became a rogue nation in his mind. We are doing the same thing today, and not just with Russia. North Korea is seen as a rogue nation run by a nut job, and Iran is portrayed as not much better. But, as I’ve pointed out, most of our puzzlement is due to our failing to understand North Korea’s and Iran’s perspectives.
Whenever we find another nation acting in ways that seem like “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it would be well to remember that our perplexity is probably due to our not understanding how they see things. And, in the nuclear age, it is always in our interest to understand other nations as well as we can. Doing that reduces the risk of needless wars, with their attendant needless nuclear risk.
I can attest from personal experience that it also makes sense to work at understanding others in interpersonal relationships. Since we got our relationship on a good basis, every time that my wife’s behavior has seemed crazy to me, I’ve found that there was a good reason behind her behavior that I was missing.
A good example, occurred recently. I had taken the older of our two cars in to the local service station and, when I picked it up, the owner told me that if I ever wanted to sell that car, he would like to buy it for his wife.
I mentioned this to Dorothie in an off-hand kind of way because the car was only six years old, and we usually keep them for at least ten. Yet, a week later, Dorothie was researching new cars. You don’t buy a new car just because someone has offered to buy your old one! At least that’s how I saw it initially.
But, I’ve matured some over our 48 years of marriage, so I went to Dorothie and told her, “It seems crazy to me that you’re looking at new cars, but you’re not crazy, so there must be something I’m missing. What is it?”
She then told me that the six-year old car lacked safety features, such as a backup camera and blind spot detection, that our newer car had, and with her health issues (heavy medication for migraines) she felt a lot more comfortable driving the newer car. Plus, over the last few years, more safety features had come out, which would relieve even more of her anxiety about driving. Adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance systems, and lane keeping assistance all were new.
As soon as I understood Dorothie’s reasoning, not only did her seemingly crazy behavior make sense. It made my life better. I have been hoping that self driving cars would hit the market before I became too old to drive. While the car we bought doesn’t drive itself, it’s about half way there.
By “getting curious, not furious,” (a great expression that a friend told me when I related this story), not only did I avoid an argument, I got a better outcome than what I thought I wanted going into the disagreement. I got a car that I love to drive, whereas I thought I wanted Dorothie to stop looking at new cars.
If the nations of the world were to get curious before they got furious, and in particular if my own nation were to do that, it would transform the world in unimaginable, positive ways. Let’s start solving those riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas before a misunderstanding blows us all up.
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