The King of Dissonance

Well, I’ve been taking up DZ’s advice and making my way through Harriet Lerner’s slim […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.23.17

Well, I’ve been taking up DZ’s advice and making my way through Harriet Lerner’s slim little power-punch of a book, Why Won’t You Apologize? (He actually left it on my desk before the sabbatical…Soooo, did he mean for me to read it? Did I say, or not say, something?) The book is a powerful glimpse into all the strategies and self-deceptions we have around our wrongdoing–on what counts as an apology, and on what keeps us from doing it. As Dave mentioned, Lerner keys in on the prime impulse that makes the non-apologizer a non-apologizer: the need to be perfect.

Some people are so hard on themselves for the mistakes they make that they don’t have the emotional room to apologize to others–or at least not in the particularly vulnerable area (say, work or parenting) in which their self-esteem is most at stake.

In theory, maybe we accept we aren’t the Best Employee in the World (or the Father of the Year), but our real emotional lives are staked in that very thing being true. It then becomes extremely difficult to apologize for missing a conference call or unleashing your wrath on your youngest. You’re not that kind of employee! You’re not that kind of parent! You are currently standing at the chasm between what you think you are and what you have just done. An apology would be to admit that that chasm is there.

This, in the realm of psychology, is known as cognitive dissonance, the chasm between “ought” and “is.” In the Mental Health Issue’s interview with Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, it was defined like this:

“Cognitive dissonance” is the mentally uncomfortable clash that occurs when we hold two opposing beliefs, or between a belief we hold dear and evidence it’s untrue. It is particularly painful when the evidence contradicts a central belief about ourselves: “I’m kind and good” vs. “You’re telling me I did something unkind and cruel?”

Dissonance, Tavris and Aronson explain, is everywhere. It’s unavoidable and written into the way the mind is wired. And, it’s always painful. A few of the many you may have encountered this morning:

  • The belief that you had bought a good coffeemaker, not the kind that vomits grounds all over the countertop and into your cabinets.
  • The belief that you had married a caring, charitable person, not the type that could spew such hate at a Facebook post, even over their bowl of cereal.
  • The belief that you, in fact, were also a caring, charitable person (certainly not the kind to judge “friends” on Facebook), when you opened your inbox this morning to find a third email from a close friend, subject line reading: “Anyone there?”

To varying degrees of discomfort, our days are filled with these harsh reality checks. They act like continual reminders–but reminders of what? That we tend to see the world wrongly? That we have a high opinion of ourselves and our decision-making abilities? That we need the world to fit our picture of it? All of the above?

Yes, all of the above. And what’s worse, as Tavris and Aronson go on to say: dissonance is the engine of self-justification. We minimize the pain of our botched expectations by making excuses. We tighten the gap between the way it was supposed to go and the way it went, almost always in the attempt to stack the deck in our favor.

And one thing I’m realizing is that we do this best–at least I do this best–in matters of faith. Theology (even a theology of the cross!) becomes one of the prime ways we build a totem of control over a world that seems to lend us none. Just like the Ario article from the weekender mentioned, ideologies (and their figureheads) become invested with such powerful emotional transference, that to hear about the existence of a conflicting idea is complete agony. Even if the “right ideas” are preached by the wrong figurehead from the wrong ideology, we cannot take it. We either swell with fury, ready for combat, or we quickly explain it away, dismiss it or categorize it as nothing at all. Whatever we do, we do it to relieve the dissonance that might tell us something’s wrong. I hardly need to say that this remains true even for an ideology of grace.

But something is wrong. And the dissonance tells us that. It tells us, over and again, that we believe the wrong things. It tells us that, though we are anxious to have chosen the best coffeemaker, the caring spouse, the right theology, we’re barking up the wrong tree. Dissonance has the uncanny ability to show us that our way of seeing things is ultimately incomplete, and even wrong. Especially when it comes to matters of “right theology,” this is where it all breaks down: though we may be devoted to and dependent upon an ideology, we are called by, and saved by, a person.

Jesus was the King of Dissonance, after all. The Messiah born in exile, bedded down with the animals. The King of Kings, rejected by the powerful, the religious teachers and scribes, friend of junkies and little kids and parolees. He was supposed to come in victory on a white horse–he rode in on the donkey, a farcical parade. The longed-for lion was in fact the lamb. “It is finished” was not the emperor’s cry from the last won battlefield, but from the death of an imperial subject, a common criminal. The Christ we longed for was supposed to reign, to subdue, to rectify. The Christ we got came to suffer, to serve, and to die. This was Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Which brings me back to Harriet Lerner and the great difficulty of apologies. It seems to me that the great cosmic joke that Christians in particular are privy to is a healthy appreciation for dissonance, a readiness for botched expectations, and therefore a heartfelt and unqualified resignation to apologize: “Yes, I was wrong about that. I’m sorry.” I thought it was going to go that way, I thought I was better than I am, I thought I had it all figured out, but I was wrong. Praise Jesus, I was wrong.