Rediscovering Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance in action. Photo from David Sipress.

I was feeling antsy on Tuesday and suddenly took to organizing a section of the filing cube next to my desk. This brought me to several old journals I had kept while completing my master’s degree at The Graduate Institute. One journal refused to fit nicely back in the box where it belonged, so I allowed the spiral-bound book to flop open revealing its contents. My eyes scanned the text messily scribbled on the right-hand side of a page dated 8/5/11 – exactly 1 week and 3 years ago.

Messages from the Past

What was going on that afternoon? I immediately wondered. Reviewing my large, cursive scrawl, I could see that as usual I had written about how unproductive I thought I had been. I questioned why I had opted to go play basketball with my niece and nephew rather than finish the schoolwork slated for that evening. As I read, I shook my head irritated that after 3 long years discipline and timing continue to challenge me. I looked to the journal’s proceeding day for more insight. A now familiar word popped off the page, underlined with a decided determination – DISSONANCE. The word offered clarity as to the struggle I so frequently face between the person I feel I should be, and the “me” I really am.

The Origin of a Word

At the time, I was apparently just becoming acquainted with the word and the notion as I wrote:

8/3/11 When I woke this morning I decided to view the mentorship information, as I know I really need to get that ball rolling. I noticed the repeated use of the word, “dissonance” to describe the core piece of the activity. I recognize that word as one that Bud [Stone] used frequently in The Right Work programs. It’s a word that causes a fear to rise in my belly, yet it intrigues me and draws me in. Bud spoke of dissonance as something he always sought. That shocked and amazed me as I‘ve always thought dissonance was the very thing I should be running from. I don’t like the feel of conflict or stretching myself yet I do appreciate that such conditions are the only means for growth and true learning. And, when I really analyze my life I find that I am often in dissonance or somehow seeking it. Every time I approach my TGI [writing] portfolio, I experience dissonance. It is so hard to battle my thoughts – to wrestle them down so that they can be expressed in a coherent way. Doing so is a painful and challenging undertaking, but fulfilling in the aftermath – dissonance at work.

Defining Dissonance

The technical definition of dissonance is “a lack of agreement.” In particular, it refers to an “inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one’s actions and one’s beliefs.” It is also a term used in music for chords that clash. No matter how you define it, it stirs up powerful emotions in me, as it goes against the “good girl going with the flow” persona that I have always thought I should follow.

A Lesson Repeated

Here’s where things get a little weird. Just prior to the impromptu journal reading, I received an email from a beloved friend from The Graduate Institute. He mentioned seeing me at the college’s graduation this past weekend. His note, and my participation in the event, made me nostalgic for the day two years ago when I graduated. It caused me to reread the speech I had written and delivered. In it I said, “Bud Stone also reminds us that dissonance is what helps us to learn and grow. It is the challenges in life that truly empower us to become better, smarter, more successful people. But, first we must accept those challenges as the blessings they are intended to be, and we must surrender to what is.”

A New Understanding

I’m stunned that the person I am today does not feel like the same person who wrote that speech. Somehow, in the past few years I have forgotten to see the value of dissonance – possibly, because a whole lot has come my way. Several deaths, job loss, a sick parent, difficult clients, the loss of a pet, and the painful realization that 40 years is way too long to allow people to walk all over me, all have created a dissonant disco in my life, and I haven’t exactly been dancing along. Instead, I have fallen into old patterns of fighting dissonance, seeking comfort and peace versus facing challenging truths head on. I question or censor myself rather than speaking up with confidence and clarity. I also cling to the belief that avoiding difficult people and challenging circumstances is my ticket to peace. Yet, I know deep down that isn’t true. It may feel safe or comfortable, but there is no peace in avoidance. The challenges we face revisit us until we can stare them down and show them who’s boss.

Dissonance = Demons

I originally wrote these musings on Tuesday, in a moment of clarity and awareness. But, I held onto the words unsure of whether I should share them, wondering if anyone would even understand. Then, I got news of Robin Williams passing and I went a bit numb. While I read posts from people questioning how someone could be so outwardly happy, so contagiously funny, while harboring so much pain, I got an even clearer view of dissonance at work. Fighting to be the funniest, the smartest, the prettiest – whatever achievement you are looking for – is dissonance in its most dangerous form. Seeking validation of any kind is a slippery slope that leaves us feeling empty and lacking.

Disease = Dissonance

News broke yesterday that Williams was also battling Parkinson’s Disease, a chronic illness that for many feels like a death sentence. Anyone with chronic illness can understand the pain and horror of facing life with such a burden. This too is dissonance in an ugly, frightening form. When you are ill, your entire life is challenged. What you think, what you know, how you feel are all in a state of flux dependent on how your body or mind choose to behave. Interestingly, Robin was in the film “Awakenings” in which catatonic patients were temporarily given new life with the medicine L-Dopa, the very medicine used to treat Parkinson’s Disease. A theme of that movie was that while the medicine hadn’t cured the disease, it had offered hope and encouraged the patients (and staff) to appreciate and live life. It is an ironic message given William’s suicide, but a poignant one too. If he had hope his demons may have been kept at bay.

It is true that if we are able to accept dissonance we can learn and grow from it. It is also true that if we concede to it, we will ultimately die. For many of us, it will be a slow, subtle demise not nearly as dramatic as that of Robin Williams. But, a losing battle none-the-less. Going forth I vow to give it my best fight every step of the way.

I hope you are with me. 


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