Cognitive Dissonance, Despair, and Practicing What We Believe

Cognitive Dissonance

My family and I have been talking a lot about cognitive dissonance lately and how it might have some connection to our mental health. The phrase was new to me, but the practice of it was not. Whenever we have a conviction and cannot or do not live by it, we create a mental distance between our beliefs and our actions–we are singing two notes that don’t go together. To protect ourselves, we mute the noise. As the distance grows, so does our guilt and despair.

For me, that distance is often created by thoughts that center around either the impossibility of change or the futility of a single action. The problem is that, even with these excuses, I feel a suppressed but ever-present guilt when I don’t align myself to my convictions.

I don’t think being motivated by guilt or striving for perfection without grace is healthy. Sometimes I can’t physically, mentally, or financially live up to my convictions every single moment. I must have grace for my brokenness as Christ does. But I still don’t want to say that I never tried because I was afraid of failure. To follow my convictions is not to run away from guilt but to run towards a better way of life–a life that is rightly related to the world around me.

Chasing Right-Relatedness

I recently heard an interview with Wendell Berry in the documentary Look and See that gave me some hope for when my actions don’t seem to matter. He says that everything in the world has been divorced. What was once together has been severed apart. This is the result of the Fall. He suggests that it is not our responsibility to fix everything. However, he says that it is our responsibility to put those things that were severed back together again, even if it’s one thing at a time. He felt that even something as simple as art did this. It’s about doing what we can in our place.

If I am not adding to the wholeness of the world, then I may be adding to its brokenness. If the inaction of the government or the common person discourages me into inaction and depression, then it is all the more important that I find the people who are acting and join them. If no one is acting, then I still must act, even if I am putting together one broken thing in a shattered world.

I want to live that way. I’m tired of living with one eye covered by acting one way while I believe another way is better. That better way is often harder, and I shy from hard things. But I wonder sometimes how content one can be by living an easy life and always taking the worn path. Difficulty challenges us, and overcoming challenges always leads to a kind of joyful pride. It gives us purpose. It makes us stronger.

Living What I Believe

I have been inspired by the book You Are What You Love by James. K. A. Smith, which compels Christians to practice daily habits and rituals that align ourselves to Kindgom-centeredness. He believes this is important because we often fall into the practices and rituals of our culture instead of the ones we claim to believe, and this further shapes our identity. Smith argues that “we are what we love,” but that what we love is shaped by our actions. Sometimes we don’t act on our convictions because we need new habits that re-shape our desires towards righteousness.

“If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion into practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life” (22)

In other words, true conviction–conviction that lasts and compels us to action–comes from continually aligning ourselves to a particular vision. To align myself with my convictions, I would need to continually practice the kinds of rituals that make me desire this way of life. To me, this may mean talking about it with others, praying about it, reading scripture or other texts, journaling, or researching. It also means actively planning ways that I can live out what I believe.

Last week, I wrote about how living out one of my convictions meant to garden more. This year, especially during the approaching Lenten season, I want to look more closely at my life and the ways that I either add to the world’s brokenness or to its wholeness. For me, this means looking at how I relate to others, to the environment, to myself, and to God.

I know that I can’t change the world or fix its brokenness. This world will always be broken and evil until Christ comes to redeem it. But Christ also wants to redeem it through us today, one broken relationship at a time.

I also know that I must not only expect but accept failure. As a perfectionist, I am rule-centered and feel guilty whenever I break a “rule.” This is not about a list of rules. It is about trying–even when I fail–to align my life to my values.

Finally, and importantly, I know that it is a privilege to even consider some of these actions because of my situation and support systems. That said, I want to do things that are and accessible rather than buying into expensive solutions that, while pretty and well-marketed, are not available to everyone.

For the next few weeks, I will be exploring this topic on the blog and challenging myself to change some habits. I hope you’ll join me. Even if my convictions are not yours, I challenge you to consider how we can heal the places we are in together.

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