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.

My Middle School Life: A Retrospective

Glasses lying on top of an open book

Over the Spring, when we, like most everyone else in the world, were under stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, I was doing a lot more reading along with my “quarantine projects.” I was actively digging for new books, sometimes random books that would pop up from my memory and of which I no longer owned a copy for whatever reason. During one of these digging expeditions, I dug up the Books of Swords trilogy from Fred Saberhagan on Audible. Wow, did these take me back.

I remember discussing this series in depth with my best friend. I was in middle school, he in high school. The mythology of Saberhagen’s world was prominent in my imagination for more than a year during that time. I went through the series quickly this Spring, loving every moment of its fantasy adventures. There were times that I felt I was in my middle school bedroom again, devouring the fantastical tales.

This, of course, led to me remembering and searching for other authors that I had originally discovered during that period of my life: Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Robert Henlein. I wanted to be talking to my best friend again (I have, to my discredit, no idea where he is these days), to be rattling on to my parents about these amazing books that I was reading, somehow oblivious to their facial expressions as they stood before the firehose of my mental landscape.


I make a trip to my local comic shop every weekend to collect my pull list for the week. Last weekend, I was on my way there, listening to an 80’s hair band station on Pandora that I’ve been carefully curating over the course of several years. I was always sort of conflicted about life goals, but these two things have always been true: I wanted to write books for a living, and I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. And, honestly, I’ve done a bit of both, but life has taken strange and unexpected turns with me, as it does with everyone else.

In grad school, there was a point in which I found myself missing my college theatre days. A lot of the books that I read…and searched for at local bookshops then…were driven by that desire to regain something that had been, not lost, but misplaced. I phased out of this for a bit, no longer looking for Beth Henley plays…but now, lately, I have been drifting back to high school (in music) and middle school (in books). In an odd way, I’m sort of being selective about the time period of my nostalgia. Maybe this has been more pronounced because of the stress in the world…we all just want to escape. However, after going through a period of near-asceticism in seminary, I remember what hit me in the face when I was reading Donald Miller, an extremely popular author amongst students of religion at the time. In Blue Like Jazz, he writes:

“Something got crossed in the wires, and I became the person I should be and not the person I am. It feels like I should go back and get the person I am and bring him here to the person I should be.”

Donald Miller, “Blue Like Jazz,” p. 98

I don’t want to regress to childhood, or to my teenage years. However, it is important to recognize that all of these “phases” that I went through made me, laid the foundation for who I am today. Some of that is better, some of that is worse, because I, like everyone else, have made really good and really bad decisions at various points in my life. All of this, however, can be providentially woven together for the good, and walking away from it, as I initially did in my early seminary days, carries the risk of idolizing the present and rejecting the past. The past needs to be remembered, including our personal pasts. Where there was bad, we learn from it, and where there was good, we embrace it. There is a wisdom gained from a life lived. In additional to reading some really good books, this recent internal retrospective has taught me that.

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.

Finding the Positive

Slowly…ever so slowly…life is beginning to stir in northern New England. Almost as though we skipped spring and decided to wake from sleep directly into summer, we are beginning to re-discover old freedoms that feel new again. Workarounds and substitutions for real life have become so commonplace that I had forgotten what real experiences are like, although I’ve craved them. I met my friend for our weekly coffee in person last week for the first time since February. The last time that we saw each other face-to-face, there was snow outside the coffee shop window. That’s disconcerting, to say the least.

Other freedoms are still delayed, some more frustrating than others…Karen and I long to worship with a faith community again, not just the distanced images on a screen. Working out at the gym appears to be some weeks away, as well, something which I find contributing of my weakened state when I’m confronted with an uncharacteristically hot day in May, a day that feels more like July, which immediately curtails any sort of morning run.

Since the end of March, though, I’ve substituted my usual workout days with either a run or a brisk walk. When we were traveling in March, just before the world broke, I got into the habit of taking a walk with my coffee in the morning to get some air before I started my work day. That practice morphed into not just my usual workout days, but most weekdays. I think that I’m in better shape now than before the pandemic, and have even gotten to know some others in the neighborhood as we’ve passed on the street.

Better fitness is perhaps the most unexpected positive effect of a stay-at-home order, but by far not the only one. Even though I only commute three days weekly on average, I’m saving between six and eight hours every week with Boston traffic out of the equation. That’s time that I’ve been able to spend spontaneously chasing my kids around our yard, or having leisurely conversations with Karen of the sort that we used to have in grad school. I’m catching up on a lot of reading. I’m even pausing to think and enjoy some quiet every now again. As we bleed into summer, our daughters have made friends with a neighbor…”best friends,” as they refer to themselves, which makes me recall my best friend in childhood, and how that friendship and those summer day experiences were so formative for me. I smile when I see my kiddos growing up into some of the same experiences.

I eagerly anticipate our release from suspended animation over the coming weeks, and have jumped at the chance to go out for coffee, and to make my weekly comic book run. This time in, though, as emotionally trying as it has been for all of us, has lent itself to some positive things if we look for them.

I have a hard time looking, but when I do, the good isn’t difficult to see.

Hot Wheels Recollections

Every boy is into cars at some point. This fact is, as they say, as American as apple pie. I wasn’t any different. When I was a boy, the popular choice was Hot Wheels, which, until writing this, I had no idea were still such a big deal. And, though I would soon move on to action figures and comic books by the time I was leaving elementary school, I still managed to put together a decent collection of toy cars.

A collector's case for my toy Hot Wheels (and Matchbox) cars from childhood.
The collector’s case for my toy Hot Wheels (and Matchbox) cars from childhood.

Eventually, my parents bought a collector’s case in which I could store these cars (they were likely tired of always finding them underfoot). That case returned with me after last summer’s vacation, and our kids have quite enjoyed giving the cars contained within a second life. Last week, our oldest, ever inventive, strung a rubber band between the legs of a dining room chair and discovered that she could launch the cars to spectacular effect. She couldn’t wait to show me, and I was immediately enthralled in the game. I was fascinated by how these cars, long dormant until a few months ago, could still roll with such speed, and I have much respect for the fact that they were built well enough to still withstand the collisions and blows that come with serious play. They just don’t make them like that anymore (said every Dad ever).

One of the cars that my daughter pulled out was a Bell Systems van, modeled after the vans that workers of the regional “Baby Bell” phone company drove in our area. My father retired from “the phone company.” When I was little, he bought me that toy van because it was identical to the one that he drove for work every day. I had forgotten how we had bonded over “racing cars” in my childhood, which proved to be so important for our relationship as I think that Dad struggled to relate to my later interests. I recall one Christmas morning racing cars around the toy track that I had opened that morning, surprised later as my Dad played back the audio of the morning on a cassette tape that he had made with his new stereo system. Those were different times, and so foundational to us keeping our relationship as I moved from an obsession with comic books and superheroes to music in high school, and later to writing and theatre in college. When I came home on weekends, we would still sit down and watch a basketball game together, and those car races were, I’m convinced, the reason why. They had grounded us somehow, provided a connection.

There are signs in the mundane, tiny monuments to help us recall essential and explanatory moments from our pasts. Across all of those years, that toy van helped to connect us in a very similar way that it did for my father and I. That evening, my daughter had found a tiny miracle contained within a Hot Wheels car, without even realizing that she had done so.

I am so glad that she did.

The old toy Bell Systems van that was a gift from my father all those years ago.
The old toy Bell Systems van that was a gift from my father all those years ago.