Like many Mormons, I have a long and varied history with cognitive dissonance. We have a wonderfully boisterous, co-dependent, passive-aggressive kind of relationship, cognitive dissonance and I. My religious side wants to believe things based on faith, to see spiritual experiences, to feel connected to God. My analytical side wants to see proof, to analyze experiences dispassionately, and to call BS on things that just don’t add up. That’s pretty much the standard recipe for cognitive dissonance (double the almonds for some extra crunch, and don’t overcook).
Given the role of cognitive dissonance in my own life, I find it fascinating to see the exalted place of cognitive dissonance in the archetypical ex-Mormon narrative. My impression is that cognitive dissonance generally receives a seat of honor at the exmo table. I hope I’m not mischaracterizing; I say this based on discussions I’ve had with friends who have left the church, sometime visits to alternatives-to-Mormonism sites like View from the Foyer or Recovery from Mormonism, and visits to bloggernacle sites where the topic is discussed.
A popular image is the shelf. That analogy goes something like this: A person discovers tidbits about Mormon history or theology — polyandry or Elijah Abel or Joseph Smith’s coffee drinking or whatever else — and puts those facts onto a shelf, choosing to ignore them for awhile. A shelf, however, is a Very Bad Thing (TM), because shelves create cognitive dissonance. People have trouble remembering what is on which shelf; things start falling down and getting mixed in with the dirty laundry; finally, the shelf collapses altogether, and the storyteller leaves the church in disgust and disillusion. (For some bloggernacle discussion of the shelf, see, for example, the comments in this Flanders post).
I daresay that if I read only Recovery from Mormonism, I might come away with the idea that Mormons have a near-monopoly on cognitive dissonance. This would be silly. Mormons didn’t invent the term. If you crack open Webster’s dictionary and look up “cognitive dissonance,” there’s no angel Moroni picture there. Shh — here’s a secret: Many people manage to have some amount of cognitive dissonance in their lives without even being Mormon.
Cog-dis doesn’t always come from being Mormon, then, but the exmo narrative certainly ties in to reality — cognitive dissonance crops up in many Mormons. Why? It will vary from person to person, but I think there are some major contributing factors among members. First, Mormons tend to incorporate both faith and rationality into our lives; second, we tend to want to make it all fit into one Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Mormons see conflicting facts or ideas as problems which must be solved — we must restore balance to the force; we must harmonize all parts of our lives. Like our irrational desire to be happy all the time, Mormons feel a need to make it all fit. That quest is misguided; it doesn’t all fit all the time, and that’s really okay.
That’s right, it’s okay. Pieces that don’t all harmonize are just fine. Why is there a need to harmonize it all? Sure, without some efforts at grand harmonization, Part A may contradicts Part B. But, so what? There are lots of parts of my life — and yours too — where a Part A clashes with a Part B, and we don’t feel an overarching need to reconcile all of those. Why is religion any different?
For example, take a look at your rolodex, or your e-mail inbox. You’ll notice that you are friends with people who hate each other, and you’re in regular contact with folks who don’t get along at all. I’m friends with both Steve Evans and Adam Greenwood, for example, despite the fact that they don’t always get along so well. I’ve got cousins and in-laws and aunts and uncles engaged in all manner of strategic alliances and cold wars. We all do this with friends and relatives: Your mother can’t stand your wife; your brother doesn’t like your kids; your in-laws don’t really like you very much, and no one likes your cat. And yet you can have lunch with aunt number one and dinner with aunt number two, and life goes on. There is just no overriding need to harmonize your Rolodex.
There are no doubt other areas of life where Part A and Part B just don’t make sense together. You feel a desire to save the earth, yet you drive a slick-looking SUV. You contribute to PETA, but you wear leather shoes. You subscribe to both the Weekly Standard and the Nation, and you like articles from them both. You run three miles in the morning to stay in shape, but snack on Oreos late in the evening. Or maybe you’re a Red Sox fan who is unsure of who to hate when Clemens pitches against the Yankees.
Do these clashes create existential angst? Is there a need to put Aunt One on a shelf while having dinner with Aunt Two? Should I feel that I’m cosmically out of balance if I’m chatting with both Adam and Steve on the same day? Must I assume that the leather-wearing vegetarian is a neurotic with serious unresolved issues? No. There is no need to harmonize every aspect of our lives. We don’t harmonize our rolodexes; we don’t harmonize our reading or our exercise habits; as my wife can attest, I certainly don’t harmonize my wardrobe. And we need not obsess about harmonizing our spirituality and our intellects.
Balance is unnecessary in many contexts. Oh, it’s necessary from time to time. Balance and harmony are very important for rock gardens and fine wines, for instance. The Zen garden carefully arranges rocks, sand, water, and whatever other elements, into a state of perfect harmony. Similarly, winemakers spend years learning how to achieve a perfect balance of elements in their wine. There are certainly times and places to worry about balance and harmony. But at the end of the day, Paul Simon’s suggestion notwithstanding, I am not a rock. And being Mormon, I can’t even drink wine. So why should I be worried about perfect harmonization and balance when it comes to my spirituality and intellect? I am not a rock garden, and my spirituality can exist in the same state of lovely imbalance as my rolodex or my wardrobe.
I expect that my on-again, off-again relationship with cognitive dissonance will continue. My life contains an imperfect balance of elements which don’t harmonize perfectly. I’m not going to get 100 points from wine uber-critic Robert Parker, and neither are you. We’re jug wines, all of us — too fruity, too unbalanced, and way too much time spent blogging. But that’s just fine. We’re out of balance, we’re out of harmony, and life goes on.
Join with me then, if you will, in a toast. Break out your best bandido voice, and say “Balance? We don’t need no stinking balance!” And then raise your bottle of Virgil’s root beer,* and let’s toast together: Here’s to cognitive dissonance; and to living life as something other than a rock garden.
*Virgils being about the most balanced thing that a Mormon can legally drink. It’s a microbrewed root beer flavored with anise and licorice, cinnamon and cloves, and it is very tasty chilled. It pairs well with a gorgonzola piccante and wonderfully with a nice strong valdeon or cabrales. It also goes smoothly with an aged pecorino toscano — though remember, I tend to be of the opinion that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with pecorino toscano.