Question: Cognitive Dissonance — Lining Up Our Beliefs and Actions

shatterrealm asked you:

At your convenience, could you talk about cognitive dissonance and why it isn’t ideal? Specifically, why our actions and our beliefs should line up?

Hey my dear friend, I totally love this question.  And I have to give a shout-out to your other blog too, you’re one of my favorites.

As always, please feel free to skip around on this one.

In case we need an easy definition, cognitive dissonance is basically the tension between what we say and what we do.  The wider the gap and the longer we let it exist, the more tension we experience and the more we justify it with crazy half-baked rationalizations.

A classic case of cognitive dissonance is smoking cigarettes.  By now, we all know that smoking is bad for your health — so either 1) a smoker has to quit, or 2) a smoker has to reinforce why they need to keep smoking.

Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theories (1957) showed that “we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony.”  Research even shows that smokers who quit and then relapse back to smoking are even less likely to ever quit again, because they had to increase their excuses to go back to their smoking habit.

All this to say: Cognitive dissonance can actually be a very powerful motivator to quit certain things and start new ones, and it points to a deeper spiritual reality about how things ought to work.  People are not meant to live within the tension of dishonesty for too long.

Integrity is inherently important to people, and those who fail to be accountable are often torn apart in the media or beat themselves up too.  No matter what people are saying about morality today, everyone still wants to keep it real.  Everyone can hear the obvious anvil-thud of rationalizations and we’re all sick of political double-talk.

I actually believe this anger towards hypocrisy points to a very simple human truth: that every single human being, regardless of their beliefs, is measured by the common scale of authenticity.  Somehow an ideal exists that dishonesty is the corruption of something very good, and that even the authentic failure is better than a covered up conspiracy.

We could say this ideal exists because of evolutionary development or social pressure or a morally rewarding culture or careful parenting or a biological directive — but then we’d have to explain why that exists too.

Here’s my guess. 

I believe we all remember a time when what you see is what you got, when we could see each other at face value without the fear of betrayal, without the constant modification of our voices in a crowd, when we would rather hear the truth that hurts than a lie that soothes.  I believe we each have a timeless memory of naked honesty and that it was good.  We knew what was good before we drowned ourselves in cowardly blame-shifting and going for a sneaky angle with an agenda.  We have a trace of what it was meant to be, when every word was as strong as oak and every action came from the furnace of our truest feeling.

We know Judas was wrong.  Not just because he said one thing and did another: but because hypocrisy kills us.  Cognitive dissonance is never a personal private matter.  It eventually bleeds into our relationships and destroys the human tapestry.  You can act a hundred ways with a hundred people and even get away with it for a while: but eventually those fragments will collapse inward into shrapnel and lacerate thousands more.  When our actions and beliefs don’t match up, it’s not simply  “feeling disharmony,” but it brings chaos into the world.

More than that: This is also about having the right kind of action and belief.  We can believe some pretty terrible things and act on them with accuracy, but that’s even worse.  I can believe that punching cops and kicking animals is right, but even sincerely doing those things makes me a jerk.

I remembering hearing a message about how Christians can either be 1) radically generous or 2) radically pure, but it’s hardly ever both.

So for 1) Jim Jones, the infamous religious leader of the Peoples Temple suicide cult, ended up responsible for nearly a thousand deaths in 1978.  He was notoriously an adulterer and drug addict.  Yet he donated tons of money for police widows, the NAACP, newspaper publishers, and gave food and clothing to the poor.  Most of Jones’ followers donated their entire life savings away.  So Jim Jones, while radically generous, was definitely not much else.

And for 2) There were the ascetic monks of the early church in the third century and on.  They lived apart from society in routine-driven communes, fasted like crazy, memorized the Book of Psalms (that’s 150 chapters y’all), never had sex, and prayed around the clock.  They were certainly pure: but they were so far removed from society that no one in the real world ever saw them, and we could certainly say they were self-absorbed hermits who looked down upon the mainstream.  They were the worst sort of hipsters in history.

So yes, Christians are called to be both radically pure and radically generous.  But when we read this, it’s easy to say “Those religious hypocrites, serves them right.”  We expect those who uphold a moral standard to be more accountable, or we say “I could never be as bad as them,” or we want to throw out all standards and say we’re each responsible to ourselves.

But why does this even bother us?  If everyone is expected to be accountable to their “own standard,” then Jim Jones and the ascetic monks have no one to answer to.  They did fine of their own accord, even if no one else thinks so.

I think this bothers us because all of us are hypocrites too, and it’s easy to point at other hypocrites to ease our own hypocrisy. It’s why we love celebrity meltdowns, because we each feel this surge of self-righteous vindication and think, “If I had all that money, I wouldn’t be acting that stupid.”  But comparing ourselves to Jim Jones or Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen is to compare poop to diarrhea.  I think all of us are actually called to be both pure and generous, as much as we hate to admit it: and we all fall woefully short.

We’re all hypocrites because we’re all falling short of both our own standards and a higher universal standard that exists apart from us.  I know not all of us will see eye-to-eye on that one.  I happen to think that standard is divine.

Here’s what I know. 

At three in the morning when we’re watching our ceiling fan spin, all of us experience an existential panic about why we’re alive at all. 

We hear the heartbeat of a universe that threatens to crush us into insignificance in that tiny molecule of a bed in an atom of a house of a street that no one will know in a million years.

We examine our own lives and feel the dissatisfaction between what we say and what do, the lies we told and the sex we regret and the death we spoke and the lives we dishonored: and more than that, we feel there is a terrifying standard even above our own. 

As much as we try, there’s a panicked desperation that we will never make up for where we failed ourselves and others, and that life will pay us back somehow, and that our existence will end with an ellipsis into dust. 

We have that anxious late-night twitch of remorse over broken promises and dead relationships and irreversible choices. 

And secretly we wish for someone that would know our dishonest double lives and still root for us, cheer for us, still love us in the icky awkward gap of our charade.  We wish for a grace that covers what we’ve done and empowers us for what there’s yet to do.  We wish for a love that won’t leave, even when this time on earth is over.

I believe this sort of grace has a name.  I believe there was only one kind of love that went backwards through our gap and met us where we are, in that space of our hopeless hypocrisy, and still loved us.  We’re offered forgiveness, which is what we need not only for yesterday, but tomorrow.  I believe we don’t need to desperately compensate for our shortcomings with reactionary righteousness — because this was already done for us, and we can act out of freedom instead of trying to prove ourselves.  I believe I can quit beating myself up because this grace already took my blame, and self-punishment doesn’t work anyway.  I believe there is rest for us.  I believe his name is Jesus, and he loves hypocrites like you and me.  At three in the morning, we all know his name, whether we say it or not.

— J.S.

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