“Cognitive dissonance”…, I’ve heard that phrase several times over the years. But, it was only a few months ago that I took the time to see what it actually meant. Consulting the Google, I found it is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously” (courtesy Messrs.’ Merriam and Webster). As I read that, a huge light bulb flashed on in my head and I thought “So, that’s what you call it!” Come to find out, I’d been experiencing cognitive dissonance most of my life. When you think about it, though, being white and Christian in America is to live with cognitive dissonance most of the time. If you have a shred of social conscience, that is.
Okay, that last sentence sounds a little inflammatory. But, it’s true. And, I’m not saying that people who don’t believe the same way I do don’t have a conscience, even if they swear they don’t have any doubts about what they believe. Because, I’m pretty sure they do have doubts; they just haven’t acknowledged them…, or they’re keeping them under wraps because they’ve been told all their lives that doubt is a bad thing. I get it, though; coming to grips with that unease (or even acknowledging it exists) is hard. Especially since it can cause you to change almost everything you believe.
Take me for example. It may surprise you to know that I wasn’t always the radical, progressive Jesus hippie I am today. Once a upon a time, I was a hard-core, conservative Republican. Actually, I was a hard-core, conservative libertarian who was a registered Republican because the Libertarian Party doesn’t exist in NC, but that’s not really important. I believed that people were poor because they made poor choices and I didn’t want my taxes supporting them. I believed it wasn’t my problem if someone didn’t have health care; they should get a job and get some insurance like the rest of us. And, I believed that it was our responsibility to be the world’s policeman and spread the uniquely American gift of democracy across the world…, by force if necessary. If I’d read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged back then, it probably would’ve become my new Bible. So, what happened?
As much as I’d like to tell you that the transformation took place like Paul’s, with a blinding light and scales falling from my eyes within a few days, that’s just not the case. No, the change took place over a much longer period of time. The seeds were planted about 8 years ago when I returned to church after an absence of almost 30 years. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice it say that I had some not-so-good church experiences in my youth. But, on my return, I began to read the Bible, I mean really read it, for the first time in my life. That’s when cognitive dissonance first reared its nagging, irritating little head. Saying that Jesus’ words about caring for the least of these, loving my neighbor (and, even worse, my enemy) and community made me uncomfortable would be an understatement similar to saying Custer had a bad day on the Little Big Horn. Either I couldn’t or wouldn’t see that my beliefs didn’t mesh with the faith I was professing and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
It took a few more years and a couple of figurative blows to the head to finally confront what was eating at me and deal with it. When I say “figurative blows to the head”, I mean l ike being diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 46. That experience opened my eyes to the reality of healthcare in America. Meeting and becoming friends with Hugh Hollowell brought home the reality of economic situation all too many people in this country are dealing with. And, continuing to read the Bible and learning more about what this radical hippie I’ve chosen to follow had to say about all that worked some sort of magic and my old way of looking at the world was slowly replaced with a totally different outlook. You know what? I like the person I am now a lot better.
It’s possible someone reading this is experiencing that same disquieting feeling that something’s not quite right; that what they believe isn’t syncing with what they’re reading, seeing, hearing or thinking. So, I’m telling this story to let you know you aren’t alone and that, while dealing with those uneasy feelings may be hard, it’s definitely worth it.