Cognitive Dissonance

I grew up in a small town. Actually, that’s an understatement. Where I grew up, a small town is where you went for excitement. I lived in this strange rural/suburban mashup that was too far away from anything to be in any way convenient. School, my friends, life….all a minimum of 30 minutes away. Except for our church. That was conveniently “just up the road.”

I exaggerate a bit. Not all of my friends were far away. I had close friends in my church youth group (yes, I’m part of that generation in which the youth group was a staple for any regular church-going family), and I had close friends in school, but the strange part was…they were never the same group, and they never mixed. There were a variety of reasons for that. Several of my friends in the church group attended private schools, and some actually attended my school but were just part of a different crowd. We all remember how agonizingly clique-ish high school was.

As I grew older, I spent more time with my school friends, because all of my extra-curricular activities were with them. I still attended church regularly, but I really never saw my church friends outside of service times or youth group. By the time I left for college, that group of friends had really dwindled into almost no one with whom I maintained contact. Such was life. Such was getting older, growing up, “coming of age,” as they say.

You see, I always wanted the excitement of the city. I couldn’t leave where I grew up fast enough, much to my family’s chagrin, and I’ve sought out urban areas in which to live as an adult. I remember returning home for a visit at one point, and needing to fill up the car. I drove for 20 minutes to a service station, at which I could just fill up without paying at the pump first…the honor system that I would go in and pay after. How quickly I had forgotten this life.


When we visited my parents two summers ago, my Mom needed help running some errands in an even more rural area than they live. I drove her out the winding country roads, over hills with sharp switchbacks and narrow passages in which you just sort of hope that you don’t meet oncoming traffic (although the term “traffic” doesn’t really apply there), until we reached our destination…a church on a hilltop.

It was a sunny, August day with a blue sky devoid of clouds. At the top of the hill, just a few hundred yards before the church, sat a man in a utility truck. I imagine he was on a lunch break. He was the only other person in sight within the expansive view in front of us. It was peaceful…birds chirping the only sound one could hear. I remember stopping to take in the scene, to memorize it. It was so very different than my daily life now. My father worked in those sorts of areas until he retired. He would tell stories of some adventures that he experienced, but he loved the remote-ness, the peace and quiet, I think because he was drafted into service during Vietnam and saw the world in a way he never wanted.


When I was in high school, the closer I came to my senior year, I remember feeling more and more out of place at church. This wasn’t because I was losing my faith or anything of that nature, just that the culture of those people was waning on me, was one in which (I say to my discredit) I just wasn’t interested. There was a conversation from a couple of years prior that had been lost to the fog of memory for me until recently when it floated to the surface for some reason. One of my youth group friends pondered what would happen if there was a huge fight between the “city kids” and her friends. What would happen? Who would win? That conversation sat with me for a while. It felt symbolic, representative of a feeling that I had difficulty articulating, the embodiment of why I could never reconcile the two circles in which I traveled.

Is this where our differences come from? The cognitive dissonance between experiences causes a gap that we can’t bridge. I never connected these groups of friends not because of faith, but because of culture, not being mature enough at the time to see that faith can be a bridge between cultures. I walked in both worlds with much effort, not because of rare opportunity but because of determination. Now, when I return to visit, I understand the people there. I get how they think, because I was one of them, the same as I understand how people think where I live now because I’ve become one of them. The more we experience, the more we understand, the more we can hear. These experiences, these chances to see new things, have grown all too rare for most in a pandemic world, which only serves to exacerbate our divisions, because the inverse is also true. The less we experience, the fewer new things and other people that we encounter, the less we understand, the more isolationist we become. The deeper our divisions grow. The more we dwell on the differences of the unknown “other.”

As normalcy returns to us, I think the cure is fairly simple.

Anxiety and hatred aren’t formed in a vacuum, but…they will die in the sunlight.

Stories of Toys

A photo of my daughters' Toy Story collection.

Last weekend, we celebrated our youngest daughter’s birthday. I’m still slightly amazed at how old she is, but I think that’s a fairly universal experience among parents. When we asked what kind of party she wanted, she immediately decided that she wanted a Toy Story party. This wasn’t really a surprise given that it’s become her recent Disney + binge (don’t judge us…pandemic…). So, we ordered the supplies and scheduled a (very small and family-only, given the circumstances) birthday party. The party was delayed, though, because of New England weather that tends to mock such plans, and so we actually celebrated twice: the original date was just us, some cake and gifts from grandparents who were diligently on FaceTime to observe, and then the girls, of course, wanted to watch Toy Story. Because Forky was the subject of the day, they wanted to watch Toy Story 4, in which this character is introduced. So, we had some cake, and sat down to watch.

Permit me to pause here and describe what I know about Toy Story. I knew that it’s been around for a while, because I remember seeing the first move in theatres not long after I had finished undergrad. I didn’t appreciate how long ago until I looked this up and did the math. The original Toy Story was released nearly 25 years ago. So, first off, it’s enduring, and secondly….I’m old.

When my daughters began collecting toys from the movie, I knew there had been more than one, but figured it was one of those things in which Disney was just making more to continue to cash in on the first movie’s success. When Karen and the girls were visiting family out of state a couple of summers ago and she called to say they were headed out to see Toy Story 4, I remember replying something to the effect of, “Sheesh, there are 4 of those? What else can they do with that plot?” And that was the extent of my knowledge of the franchise.

Watching the fourth film, and then later that afternoon others in the series, with the kids, made me realize why. Sort of like Star Wars if you’ve ever tried to catch up on that universe, there’s a lot to Toy Story. And it’s actually really interesting. They’ve developed these characters over the course of the films, but there’s more there than just that.

I recently watched some of the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, which was like re-living childhood to me. Those toys…Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Star Wars…so much of that defined my childhood in so many ways. At first blush, it was that I was a collector, just as my daughters are becoming collectors now, but it’s more than that. When I think of those toys, and playing with them and opening some as Christmas and birthday gifts, I don’t so much think of the toys themselves. I think of my childhood, of the blessed journey that I had through my early years, the way that I was loved by my family and learned what family is about. I think of my parents, and what they did for me through those years. I’m motivated to give that love and support to my children, to provide for them as my parents did for me, to give them the most amazing childhood that’s within my power to give.

I ended the day of that small birthday party wistful. A lot of those toys that I grew up with as a child are still with me, either in storage or on display in my office. Many of them are invaluable to me, but not necessarily as objects…as symbols. When I think about those toys, or go through my old collection of them, I feel love. And I want to give love to my children. Love, not just stuff. These toys are serving as a symbol, in that they point to something larger than themselves, participating in that larger reality.

Part of what makes me enjoy Toy Story so much now is that it’s really a sort of love letter to those toys from my childhood, and all that they represent to me in adulthood. They manage to capture this experience that I’m having as an adult looking back, while looking at the present of my children. There’s a genius in the writing. I can’t help but think that these toys will be with my girls when they’re my age, perhaps sitting on a shelf on display, and that they will remember the loving home in which they spent their childhood.

That is my prayer.

To infinity, and beyond.

Getting to Know You

Photo of green Monopoly houses. Used under Creative Commons.

The last time that we travelled feels like forever ago, even though it was only March. During our two-week visit to help my parents though a medical procedure, I got into the habit of going for walks in the morning before starting my day. I was working remotely from there, and helping with chores, and the fresh air in between the time when one ended and the other began helped to frame the daily rhythm. I think that it was driven by memory at the time…I enjoyed surveying the back yard of my childhood and thinking through how it has changed through the decades, experiencing that odd virtual reality of the mind when reflections of the way it looked then overlay the way it looks now. The habit of going for a walk I found to be unexpectedly healthy. It was a time for reflection, for prayer, a time to focus before the day’s responsibilities truly took hold.

As we arrived home from that trip, just as the pandemic was gripping the Northeast in earnest and just before life ground to a forced halt, I kept this routine. Unable to go the gym, this also became my exercise and workout. I found that, if I woke just 30 minutes earlier than usual, I could work a healthy walk or run around the neighborhood into my morning, before it would have been time for me to leave for my normal commute (even though my commute was already a thing of memory). So, the habit stays. Karen has began referring to this as my morning and evening “constitutional.”

A funny thing happens when several other people are doing this very thing. You start to pass neighbors on the street regularly. You begin speaking to them. You pause for conversation.

This process is painful, though. I didn’t want it. The change was an interruption to our life, to my plans for the spring and summer. I was frustrated and angry, and resented getting to see these people so regularly. Frequently, though, personal and spiritual growth requires this sort of discomfort.

A few weeks ago, five of us gathered in a driveway while our children rode bikes up and down the street. We talked, learned of each others’ lives, what we do for a living…learned each others’ names. And, while this may sound trivial, it is not, because it is not commonplace in our individualistic society. We pass each other, not knowing or wanting to know each other, until we are all forced to slow down. When we do let each other into our lives, though, even at a surface level, the act quickly reveals itself to be a beautiful thing. We feel safer with our children playing outside. We’re more quickly aware of someone’s needs. We’re disabused of the illusion that any of us are islands, and we realize that we share a distinct place and time, that our lives are connected, a part of each other. A shared humanity is realized.

The pandemic that is injecting chaos into our lives is a horrific thing. There is good, however, if we look deeply. Knowing your neighborhood and those living next to you is a good thing, and a very rare thing. We just had to be made to slow down to realize it.

Image attribution: woodleywonderworks under Creative Commons.

When Doing Something is Just Making Noise

Photo of The Scream, by Edvard Munch. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot of noise in the world. Could we agree on that for a moment? Yes? Good.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, either…the useless, background throbbing that becomes simultaneously non-sensical and remarkably intrusive into our subconscious. Aside from the occasional podcast, I’ve never been overly given to that. I wasn’t the one who would have the television on in my dorm room while I was doing homework. It just didn’t take.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, I mean an overwhelming onslaught of real things that simultaneously demand our attention while leaving us powerless to do anything about them, at least anything substantive. So far, the start to our new decade has been full of these sorts of events. A pandemic, blood in the streets, political farce, the growing uselessness of social media. And, partially because we care about these things (because they impact us even if they’re not knocking on our door directly), and partially because so many people have been shut inside for so long and are going crazy with the need to have something to do…we jump onto a cause. We want to do something, not just let it go by. Haven’t we all been told at some point, after all, to be part of the solution and not the problem?

The issue with this is that, more often than not, these issues are of such a huge, national or global scale, that we really can’t do anything about them. We can’t do anything that would really make a difference, in any case, no matter what the pundits would have you to believe. This isn’t like the family problem that just caused chaos in your living room. There’s generally something that you can do to impact that directly and positively. These are things that have spun up outside of our control. They were never in our control. They exceed our control by definition.

Sometimes, we’re told there are things that we can do to “do our part.” These things range from the practical to the completely useless, from washing your hands to yelling about something on Twitter to draw awareness. Sometimes those things are valid, and more often they are completely devoid of effectiveness. Still, though, we have to do something, right?

This is when the mob mentality begins, and most of our society, having never been educated in the ability to think critically, runs like lemmings off of the cliff in a desire to exert some control, to right a wrong, to correct the evil, whether that evil is perceived or actual. And, generally, that’s when well-intentioned gestures that are in actuality quite futile begin to happen. We’ve see a lot of these lately. Removals or the vandalizing of statues, changing flags, changing logos, fleeing one social media platform for another in order to further exist in a silo. None of these actions do anything to actually contribute to a solution to the very real problems to which they are reactions. Often, in particularly insidious examples, these are the moves of marketing departments wanting to draw customers by appearing to take a stand when their company, like most, actually couldn’t care less.

The vast majority of the tweet storms, riots, monument removals, and social media shifts do absolutely nothing constructive. They are sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And that’s not even me being cynical. When I’m feeling particularly cynical, in fact, I don’t attribute these gestures to groupthink and desperation borne of feelings of powerlessness. I attribute them instead to the fact that we do these lesser things because the work of making actual change…of loving our neighbor as ourselves, of listening to and respecting opposing points of view, of considering all life as beautiful, and recognizing that we have more in common than we do different…that this work is just too hard, or something in which we actually have no interest.

That worries me the most, because that is a disease from which a society cannot recover.

Image of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893, taken from Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain.

Why We Need to Resume Life

A photo of empty tables and chairs in a restaurant setting. Used under Creative Commons.

I find it funny when I think about coming back from a relaxing holiday vacation. Funny in a not-so-funny way. I had such fantastic plans for 2020. Then, my first day back into the new year, I discovered that the company for which I work was acquired. I’m still trying to navigate the results of that. Then we discovered the downfall of only owning one vehicle when that vehicle was involved in an accident and had a transmission failure, back to back. I spent a good deal of the end of January and early February dealing with the logistics of that while still dealing with the fallout from the acquisition. Things were beginning to settle, though, as we left on a trip to assist my parents during a scheduled surgery. And then, just as I was looking forward to returning to our normal life in mid-March….well, you know the rest. One little virus, and the world broke.

2020, momentous as it begins a new decade, has stopped being the sort of year in which you achieve anything, and is becoming the sort of year that you just survive.

Now, as life begins to slowly re-open, I’m looking forward to returning to some sense of normal, even while forgetting that I’ve lived this fully remote life before. I’m seeing all sorts of positive things come from the extra time that I now have in my week with no commute, while still groaning about my first world problems…delayed haircuts, complications in getting coffee. There’s a cognitive dissonance here, but it arises from a restlessness, and a sadness as I watch others’ lives and livelihoods implode around me.

I suppose that this post might break with my rule against writing about politics, but, hey…extraordinary times, and all that. The propaganda machine is in high gear. I’m absolutely exhausted from constantly hearing some variation on the theme of “stay home, stay safe.” I’m particularly frustrated with how this is equated with “staying inside,” allowing popular opinion and convenient science to outweigh common sense in favor of corporate-driven interests. Despite the fact that fresh air and sunlight have been proven by, you guessed it, science, to combat illnesses such as this pandemic, such things are pushed aside with claims of lack of data. After all, pharmaceuticals can’t make money from fresh air and sunshine. It’s interesting how objective science, normally deified, becomes disposable when you don’t agree with its conclusions.

For the record, just in case you hadn’t guessed, I think Sweden has it right.

My issue is this at its simplest: we’re not safe. We can’t be safe. There is simply no such state, nor has there ever been. Grasping for this is nothing more than selfishness…”everyone do this extreme thing so that I won’t have a bad outcome.” At the end of the day, all of our steps to mitigate this pandemic are security theatre, just like airports after the attacks of 9/11. The nonsense at airports, though, has stayed with us, has been woven into our culture as the subject of jokes and as a general expectation. And that’s what scares me about this, because we can’t live six feet apart forever. As a people, we will die. We will go insane.

We already are.

The predictions and half-baked data modeling only serve to solidify this expectation. The emotional and psychological damage that we’re doing to each other is already incalculable. Humans die without contact, without touch.

So, when I see photos of people crowding into parks in beautiful weather, I don’t gasp and have the rage response that the rest of Twitter does. I see hope. Hope that we are willing to just push through this, hope that many see that life is going to go on, regardless, and that it’s better to be with each other as it does. I don’t want to waste week after week – time that we will never get back – cowering at home in fear, clinging to such an illusory concept as safety. A life arrested isn’t life. Its existence, at best, and at worst a prolonged death, a slow burn. It’s a death of the spirit, and that stands to be the larger casualty of this pandemic.

Just like the other casualties, though, we can minimize it, if we decide that we want to do so. But we have to do so by living. We can’t accept anything less.

Image attribution: Kevin Spencer under Creative Commons.