Cognitive Dissonance: The Truth Will Set You Free…
“…but first, it will make you miserable.” While it has been some time since I’ve written here, as I sit outside only a couple of weeks after the deadly attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, I find myself finally able to finish this post that I started several months ago. All that I have seen and read since that Sunday, as well as time to reflect, has given me a chance to try to make sense of something that I have worked through for some time – the notion or theory of cognitive dissonance – and primarily its relationship to so much of what I have experienced both in my life, and what I see coming forth from others, especially those from my own Christian faith, and especially in recent days.
For those unfamiliar with Cognitive Dissonance, it can best be described as our psyche’s response to conflicting beliefs or actions entertained at the same time and our tendency to increase the value of one belief over another, be it true or not, in order to restore consonance – in other words, to “set our mind at ease.” I believe that it is precisely a rapid growth in CD that is behind much of the division we see in the world today. As people become increasingly isolated by the very technology created to connect them with others, and there is an increase in the unwillingness to change as people, especially when confronted with something that is contrary to one’s own deeply held beliefs, the result is what we see in the news. If we are to be balanced, sane, and healthy people, then we must, from time to time, take stock of our lives and reevaluate whether we are on a good and level path, and more importantly, if what we believe is true because it is true or simply because we want it to be true.
All life is about balance, and the only constant is that things can and do change – all of nature reveals this basic fact – and we are presented every day with opportunities for growth, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources. In my life, my spiritual mentor taught me to always consider the questions and not settle for easy answers. When I am confronted with an idea or a belief that is contrary to my own deeply held beliefs or ideas, rather than immediately thinking or stating, “This is not true. This does not apply to me.” I must choose, rather, to stop and ask myself, “Is this possible? Could this be true? Does this apply to me?” Over the course of my adult life, especially when stopping long enough to reflect, I have found that often – not always – but often, change is in fact necessary, and I am being asked to move into another way of being or thinking, in order that I might grow. Frequently this is manifested by my willingness to let go of the need to be “right”…only to find that, often, right vs. wrong wasn’t the issue at all; the issue was my dualistic either/or thinking and my unwillingness to look at things differently! Just as Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker in “Return of the Jedi; “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” so too must we stop and consider other points of view. Even as a kid watching this movie, (and yes, being named Luke makes it more poignant, if you were wondering) I remember hearing that line and thinking about it every time I watched the movie, and thinking, “That actually makes a lot of sense.” Much like the sun does not actually rise or set, so too our perception of things may not always be the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, due to our own cognitive dissonance, we often refuse to even consider a different point of view than the one we already hold or especially, were raised or socialized to believe. As the quote at the beginning alludes to, when conflicting beliefs are presented to someone, they become a cause for mental discomfort and ultimately lead the person to alter one of the things in order to restore “mental balance” and ultimately to…ding, ding, ding!… (pop culture buzzwords)…”feel better”…and be “free” of that pesky gnawing thought that perhaps another point of view is just as viable as their own. Refusal to consider and deal with life and other points of view than one’s own, however, is not the truth that sets one free; it is the freedom from dealing with the truth, or rather…denial.
In the aftermath of this most recent act of violence, and in this case against the LGBTQ community (as well as the near miss of violence in California at another LGBTQ event the same weekend), and in reading the thoughts of so many after the tragedy, I was poignantly reminded of this issue of cognitive dissonance and why I am finally adamant in finishing and sharing this post. While there will always exist in this world the extreme ends of the poles – the dualistic thinking of black/white, win/lose, in/out, us/them, etc. – these are not the balance of life that must be practiced if peace and harmony are to be achieved, nor are they the principles taught by the great spiritual leaders of all ages, including Jesus Christ, whom I claim myself to believe in and follow. I witness daily the overwhelming polarization between people of differing beliefs and its catastrophic effects upon our nation and our world, as well as upon the people who make up that whole, and their respective peer groups. Rather than finding new ways to understand one another despite their differences – be they ideological, theological, or personal – and working together as one family made up of different parts, many are choosing rather to withdraw into their own religious or idealist subgroups, insisting upon an echo chamber of praise from their peers that reaffirms their own already existing beliefs. Worse yet, others choose to actively attack and tear down those “others” whose perception of life and experiences differ from their own. Saddest of all, it is often those professing Christians who represent the greatest displays of bigotry and hatred, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community, and most often, in the name of “proclaiming the truth” or “saving the sinner”, despite the example given by the very Christ they claim to follow; one of self-sacrificing love, willing to go anywhere and sit down with anyone and enter into their story.
Here is the crux of this post: I’m tired. Tired of all of it from all sides. Tired of the hate and violence and posturing and proselytizing. Tired of seeing people tear one another down. Tired of the gossip and the whispers and the petty arguments. Tired of the right and of the left. Most of all, I’m tired of being silent or coy when these topics come up around other Christians, because frankly, if I’m being honest, we Christians are often the absolute worst when it comes to our own cognitive dissonance and our ability to have discussions and debates with other people. I know and have many good and dear friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, none of whom “chose” to be “that way”, some of them open and some secret about their lives, some sexually active and some celibate, some Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, and atheist, some male, female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc.; but ultimately none of those labels matter. They mean absolutely nothing. We are friends by name; not by demographic. We are brothers and sisters and I love them dearly and treat them as such. No one has tried to force me to believe anything other than what I believe, even though we talk about our beliefs openly, which often leads to better understanding and an even deeper friendship. No one has called me a bigot simply for being a Christian, nor have they belittled my faith or my way of life. As a matter of fact, I have not ever had a “bad” interaction with anyone from the LGBTQ community. Rather, I have always been treated with love, respect, dignity, and kindness. Shamefully, I cannot say the same for interactions with those of my own religious background, who often prefer to crack jokes, disparage, and demean others who are not like them, in the name of “telling the truth” or “saying it like it is”, or my personal favorite, “…just preaching the Word whether the world likes it or not!” Let me be clear – it is not funny, it is not righteous, it is not ok, and there is no reason or excuse for it…period. As it goes for everyone you meet other than yourself, you do not know what “they” have been through unless you have walked in “their” skin, no matter what you think you know. And no matter how much you insist that you’re just trying to “help” them, perhaps it would be worth considering whether they asked for your help in the first place…
Christianity is not a club, a clique, or a comfort cruise to a magical paradise – it is a love message, a movement, and ultimately a Man – who taught us to love and identify with everyone…EVERYONE…whether we agree with them or not. When another human being is hurt, if we truly believe what we say we believe, our response is always to weep with them, embrace them, and hold them, no matter their beliefs or identity. Finally, it would behoove us to remember that Jesus never said we should hold political power and ensure our Empire is Christian. In fact…He said the opposite…because that is the way to Truth. Everything is opposite. Up is down, in is out, big is small, first is last, and they who would be greatest…must be the servants of all. It seems that this has been forgotten by many of the popular preachers of the day, and covered over by the shouting and rage and hatred that fills the airways of social media and news broadcasts. But it does not make it any less true. The Empire will do what the Empire does. Our influence is not by political prowess; it is by creative compassion. Maybe…when it comes down to it…we’re just scared because we’re no longer “on top” and living in a world where we are the greatest demographic and treated with special privilege. In the end, however, it won’t matter whether we held the positions of power, built beautiful temples, or won the White House…it will matter how we have lived and how we have loved our neighbor; and the best way to truly love someone…is to get to know them and identify with them…especially if they’re different from you. The truth can be difficult, and sometimes hard to discern, but in the end, it will set you free…even if it makes you miserable first.
The next time you’re confronted with an idea or belief not your own, try to fight your cognitive dissonance. Try not to react, resent, or even talk back…instead listen, consider, and really try to see the world from another’s point of view. You will be surprised at what you find…in fact…you may find that you’re not so different after all.