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Cogitating Cognitive Dissonance
If we had the time and method, it might be interesting to find out how many of you have figured out the sermon title. Once in a while, I do enjoy composing a sermon title that is catchy and provocative! The term "cognitive dissonance," however, is not original. According to a recent article, Professor Leon Festinger, a psychologist at Stanford University, created the term. Cognitive dissonance refers to the gap between our ideals and our actions, between our creeds and our deeds, between the image we would like to have of ourselves and the image we really present to others. The tension that results from that gap between what we should be or want to be, and the way we really are is the cause of much physical and emotional suffering.
Most of us, I suspect, are dissatisfied with ourselves at some point. We know what is meant by gaps between our expectations and reality. The Harris Survey reports that 96% of Americans would like to change something about their personal appearance; 90% (158 million people) report experiencing high stress; 59% of adults are overweight; at least 28 million adults are alcoholics; two out of three people in the country are literally obsessed with how they look. (Context, January 1, 1988) There is something about most of us we would like to change.
Cognitive dissonance is a fact of life. "There is none righteous; no, not one," wrote Paul, "all have sinned." A reader wrote to Dear Abby, "I am 44 years old and I would like to meet a man my own age who has no bad habits." Abby replied, "So would I." There have been and are few perfect people, where there is no gap between ideals and actions, no gap between creeds and deeds, no gap between their self-image and the image they project. There are very few such perfect people. Winston Churchill was once a guest in a home where the little boy had been coached to behave well and not to bother Churchill. The little boy was told, "He's the greatest man in the world." While Churchill was napping, the little boy sneaked into the bedroom to get a closer look at the "greatest man in the world." Churchill opened his eyes and stared at the little boy, who stared back and asked, "Are you the greatest man in the world?" "Of course I am," replied Churchill, "Now buzz off!"
This sermon is for those of you who admit you are not the greatest person in the world. This sermon is for those of you who feel the tension, the anxiety, the guilt of not being who and what you would like to be, or feel what you should be. This sermon is for those of you who experience cognitive dissonance. The question to ask is: what do you do with cognitive dissonance? How do you handle the gap? Do you lower the expectations? Do you lower your ideals so they are in accord with your actions? Some folks seek out therapists who will help them lower their expectations in order to alleviate the guilt they feel by not being able to live up to their expectations. Somehow, I do not think this is the response expected of us by Jesus, who told us to "be perfect as God is perfect." Of course, sometimes the expectations we have are unrealistic, and need to be evaluated. Some folks who are pushing themselves to be something for which they have no talent, should forget it! Sometimes the goal is unworthy of you. If your goal is to become rich, you would be wise to examine how realistic and advisable is the goal.
Jesus holds out before us the ideals of honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, integrity, faithfulness, goodness, justice, and righteousness (which means right relationships with God and people). Jesus challenges us to serve, to make the welfare of others our priority. Jesus calls us to do something worthwhile and significant with our lives for the sake of his kingdom, for the sake of God's vision of what life shall be like on this planet. All of us should feel the tension caused by the gap between God's vision and what is going on in our world: the fascination with war, the threat of total destruction, poverty, hunger, child abuse, etc. Yes, there are gaps. Cognitive dissonance is a reality. What do you do with the gap--the cognitive dissonance--in your life?
The Gospel lesson this morning is about the meeting of Jesus and Simon whose name Jesus changed to "Rocky." The Greek word we know as Peter really means "rock." Peter is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, partly because we know a great deal about him. Peter certainly knew a lot about cognitive dissonance. Through the biblical accounts, we see Peter struggling with the gap between what he wanted to be, and what he was. Through the years, the gap narrowed and Peter became the Rock, the head of the disciples, a strong, powerful leader of the church who eventually was martyred in Rome. We can see the growth in Peter through the years and his experience can serve as an example and lesson for all of us who struggle with cognitive dissonance.
When you deal with the tension-anxiety-causing gaps in your life called cognitive dissonance, remember Peter. When you think of Peter, think of the four Rs. Peter was real, rash, resilient, and redeemable.
First, Peter was real. He was authentic. People were never in doubt as to who Peter was. He told you. He lived it. Peter accepted himself, he was comfortable with himself. When he failed, he admitted it. When he felt guilty, he did something about it. He didn't roll in the guilt. When cognitive dissonance causes tension in your life, it is probably because you are not real; you are probably pretending. It takes a tremendous toll on you, both physically and emotionally, to act as if you are perfect when you are imperfect, to try to act successful when you're not, to pretend to be innocent when you're not, to try to be and do what others lay on you and you can't. Peter was refreshingly open about his imperfections and shortcomings.
When you are open about where you are, when you admit to yourself and those around you that you are not what you want to be, then you are opening yourself to the possibility of change. When you deny where you are and who you are by pretending to yourself and to the world, you are denying yourself the opportunity to do something about it. No doctor can help people get well when they deny they are sick! The British prime minister Disraeli once said about his rival Gladstone: "He has not one redeeming defect." That's why Jesus would choose a Simon Peter rather than a self-righteous Pharisee. The insufferable Pharisees couldn't admit any defects, while Peter openly displayed his, admitted his humanness, and thereby opened himself to the transforming power of Christ, and Peter's defects were redeemed.
The actress Betty Hutton suffered from cognitive dissonance: professional failure, family breakdown, bankruptcy and alcoholism. After a spiritual awakening, she made a comeback. When she appeared on stage during the Broadway production of Annie, the theater burst into joyful applause. The production was held up for several minutes as she stood in the spotlight, eyes glistening with tears. The program notes contained extensive biographical sketches about members of the cast, except for Betty Hutton. Her sketch contained only five words, "I'm back. THANKS TO GOD." Another Betty I admire is Betty Ford who was likewise open about her problem. Not only did her openness help her get well, but it inspired many others to also seek treatment.
There is little pretense in the Bettys. There was little pretense in Peter. Peter was real, authentic, a genuine person. He took himself as he came. He didn't excuse himself; he didn't look for rationalizations. He presented himself as he was. Here I am, like me or not. Peter accepted himself. And, in the accepting, found the grace and power to change. There is a certain irony present in this process. It is somehow easier to be redeemed, to change, when there is self-acceptance, than when there is self-rejection.
This applies to your relationships with other people as well. A woman had a husband who had a serious drinking problem. He refused to get any help. The marriage deteriorated, filled with dissension. Every night the woman prayed that God would change her husband. But no change took place. Then her pastor suggested she change her prayer. Instead of badgering God to change her husband, her pastor encouraged her to give God thanks for her husband. After all, he did have some good points. He encouraged her to give God thanks for the things in her husband for which she was grateful. When she accepted her husband as he was, and prayed prayers of thanksgiving, a change started to occur in the marriage, first with the wife and then the husband. There was a different climate. Resentment was changed to acceptance. Acceptance and love helped the husband get his drinking problem under control. Peter accepted himself, took himself as he was, without pretense and sham. Peter was real.
The second R: Peter was rash. He was adventurous, impulsive, impetuous, thereby lovable, thereby able to grow, able to make changes in his life. Peter impulsively tried to walk on water like Jesus, and sunk to the bottom like a rock. Is that why Jesus called him Rocky?? When the soldiers arrested Jesus, Peter impulsively, impetuously, rashly, drew his sword and cut off a man's ear. Not that we should emulate this behavior, but it shows his personality. His feelings were near the surface. He took chances. He risked. Because he risked, he made himself vulnerable, and sometimes he made mistakes, like cutting off the guard's ear. Jesus reprimanded him for that. Yes, Peter made mistakes, but he risked. You will never make mistakes if you never take chances, if you never risk. But, if your goal is to never make a mistake, you will never do anything. You will remain rigid and frigid, immovable, and thereby unredeemable. Peter was rash.
The third R: Peter was resilient. He kept bouncing back. Jesus had to reprimand him on occasion. At one point, Jesus did not like the advice Peter was giving him, and he told Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan." Those were strong words. But Peter didn't pout, sulk, get mad, or quit the group. He didn't say, "Jesus, take this job and shove it!" He persisted. He bounced back. When he denied knowing Jesus to the maid in the courtyard outside the trial, and thereby let Jesus down; when he was not there with Jesus through the trial and the crucifixion, he was filled with remorse. But unlike Judas, he didn't let his remorse drive him to suicide. Peter was resilient. He bounced back. After the crucifixion, he went to the upper room. He led the group in their praying and deciding what to do next. When the women found the tomb of Jesus empty, they ran to report to Peter. Peter was resilient. He kept trying. He refused to give up. He sought to become the kind of person God was calling him to be. Peter was resilient.
The fourth R: Peter was redeemable. There was always hope for Peter. Even though he disobeyed; even though he let Jesus down; even though he lied by denying he knew Jesus; even though he resorted to violence and cut off the guard's ear, in spite of Jesus' stand on non-resistance; the Lord was patient, long-suffering, and merciful. Jesus called and kept calling, "Come, follow me." The Lord did not give up on Peter. And Peter became the Rock--an exemplary, Spirit-filled, powerful leader of the movement. Peter was redeemable.
What do you do with cognitive dissonance? Don't lower your expectations. Instead, relax, and like Peter, be real, rash, resilient, and thereby redeemable.
© 1988 Douglas I. Norris