Maladapation or simply adaptation?
When experiencing cognitive dissonance, a person has two options. Three really, if remaining in a state of crazymaking incongruity counts as an approach. Assuming that easing the dissonance is the goal, however, you can go through one of two doors.
Door A is adjusting your beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, and values to fit the situation.
Door B is changing the situation.
Maybe you find yourself in a relationship that keeps spinning you into a state of confusion and doubt. Maybe you start to rethink who you are and what you believe about love. About yourself. You reconsider notions of trust. You rethink expectations. You start fitting yourself into the shape of you that will make the relationship work. (This isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just that most of the time, it is.)
So maybe instead, you let your heart break. And you get out of the relationship.
We do this all the time. In our families. In our studies. In our art. In our careers. We resolve these inconsistencies without even realizing we’re doing it. How we handle everything from money to booze, from religion to housework. The clutter makes us cringe and we decide one way or the other, at least for the moment. Door A: You know, a mess here or there is tolerable as long as it’s not really dirty.
Door B? The new chore chart goes up and everyone has to do their part before screen time.
Useful frame, as far as it goes. It’s got the micro-level scenarios covered. Individuals inside individual experiences, with their individual thoughts and beliefs and values, making individual decisions about how to navigate their own personal terrain.
But what do we do with collective dissonance? When the situation is so horribly, globally wrong? Sometimes that wrongness is glaring and shameless. And that glaring wrongness is protected by the rule of law. By armed guards. By generals. By the courts.
How long can we exist in the crazymaking state of dissonance in which our most basic values — love, freedom, connection, coexistence, kindness — are under assault? In which living them out can be a criminal act?
The spirit is strong in us, yes, but sometimes we get tired.
We know with absolute clarity that there is no form of justice or goodness that condones — let alone profits from — murdering black men and boys, denying people shelter and medical care, caging children, and poisoning the earth to manufacture more disposable crap that will in turn poison the earth. Yet all around us, it goes on, unrestrained and completely lawful. Staying in the in-between, unresolved place is agony.
We’ve tried the non-option, and the stress grows unbearable.
So maybe many of us, without really being aware of the decision we’re making, walk through Door A.
We start to look away. We limit what we take in. We do the work we can at the jobs we have to care for the people closest to us and follow through on commitments we made back when the wrongness of the world was slightly less glaring. Back then, those commitments seemed like reasonable expectations of our future selves. And now, here we are, the future self in the flesh, and it can be a relief to pretend that we are still the self of yore living in that earlier version of reality. Like maybe putting money into the 401K is still a good idea despite the burning earth? Like maybe an election will take care of things?
Maybe I’m too small, tired, and confused to make a difference anyway, we tell ourselves. Maybe other people are doing some good stuff. Maybe there are some heroes out there who are better at hero-ing than me.
These are the ways we choose Door A. We turn our perspective inside-out to ease the stress of incongruity. We let ourselves believe in unbelievable things. The dissonance starts to resolve itself.
And maybe this isn’t an entirely bad thing.
It’s just that actually, it is.
Because it’s the situation that’s wrong, not you or me. It’s the wrongness that needs to be set right, not our heads and hearts.
So I’m going to propose that we consider Door B. Instead of adjusting our inner world to be able to tolerate the insanity of violence, injustice, environmental brutality, we change the situation. We make a conscious choice, every day, to do something that sets right the wrongness.
For each of us, it’s going to be a little different. No matter what we choose, though, it’s going to be hard. Remaking what’s outside of us is always tougher than adjusting the inner world. It involves so much more than individual reorientation. It means operating without a manual, and in messy relationship with other people, out in the world where our attempts are visible. Where our attempts might fall short. Or make things worse. Or cost us dearly.
Living on in unrestrained corruption and dehumanization, though? That seems a much higher price.
Today, tomorrow, the day after that. I am going to notice when the terrible things jar me. Simply that, first of all. I will do my best not to shrink from the distress of the dissonance. My hope is that the pause illuminates those places where the disordered order corrupts values of love and justice. Where the need for change is most urgent. Where Door B is waiting for me to open it.
Then I will draw on some source of courage that grows only as I tap it, and take a step through.
Image: Street Art in Tunisia, Foreign Policy in Focus