Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance


A day ago, a psychiatrist friend of mine visited me, and I was telling him about the experience of cognitive dissonance that I sometimes have,  could this really be me? Could this really have happened? Sometimes I have a flash of the person I thought I would be if the accident hadn’t happened, and that creates a sense of the unreality of the moment.  It’s a flash that lasts maybe a second.  It used to happen all the time; now it happens more on some days than on others, and on some days it happens very seldom.  It’s like looking at a photograph of yourself before the accident—(there’s one at the top of this blog)—and instantaneously comparing it to what your condition is now.  Could things have gone another way?  This isn’t unique to me, of course; it must happen to anyone who has met with some serious misadventure, some traumatic experience.  The difference between other people who’ve had problems—they broke their leg skiing, they were injured in a car wreck, whatever—is that in at least some of those cases the two dissonant flashes— me now, and me before the event—will gradually resolve.   For someone in my situation, though, with permanent damage, I guess these flashes of dissonance will be a permanent part of life, flashes that move between one’s actual self and the self one might still have been.


The person you see in that photograph at the top of the blog, who thought he was walking fairly confidently along on a path toward the future but was obviously blindly ignorant of what the future would bring, and the person you see now, who now knows what that future actually has turned out to be—that’s the dissonant contrast.  It’s not unlike tragedy, where there’s an irony in what comes to be.  Oedipus thinks he’s confidently marching toward the future and has no idea of the catastrophe that lies ahead of him.  He experiences cognitive dissonance at that moment of realization, when he finally understands that he has killed his father and that his wife is also his mother, and that this is the fate that Apollo had in store for him.  It’s not me.  Oh, no, no, noooo,  it is me.   Of course, I haven’t had a tragedy, just a misfortune, though a really big one; but there’s still a dissonance and irony here.

Cognitive dissonance between paths—this is not the path I would have chosen, but it is a path, bordered by suffering, that leads in unexpected directions and towards unexpected results, and who knows how many other paths there might have been or might be.  I said I was tempted by the notion of the future, the lure of thinking about the future.  My psychiatrist friend responded very strongly to those words, temptation, lure--one is very much tempted to lose oneself in thinking about the future--lose oneself, that is.

I was able to think a lot as we talked about how one’s notion of the future can sometimes block one psychologically.  Thoreau speaks of “living laxly in front,” that is, laxly ahead of oneself, into the future.  One of the points of Walden is to somehow be open to the future, whatever may arise.   But, of course, fears and anxieties sometimes get in the way.

Some of the anxieties for me now are about things like whether the “BrookeCare” team we’ve been putting together will work, now that coming home is back on the charts again (though we don’t have a specific date), about getting around in the winter, about what a day at home will look like, about how to select the right home-care hospital bed, about what one will be like at 75.  These are all the sorts of personal and domestic worries that normal people have, perhaps they’re worse in my case, but they’re certainly like ordinary worries.   But these worries are precisely what block one from the sense of openness to possibilities in the future.  “Living laxly” and having a sense of openness toward the future—that’s what neurotic projections and excessive worries make impossible.  Of course, one isn’t always this way: sometimes I can see a whole range of possibilities in the future, even in my condition.  We started to make a list the other day of things I want to do—lecturing, teaching, writing, going to concerts and exhibits, taking the TrailRider out into the wilderness, having parties, forming a meditation circle, traveling—(the doctor says none of these are out of the realm of possibility)—and especially spending time with friends, but when one’s mind is operating on the darker side it doesn’t see these things.   Rather, it sees all the problems that appear to be in the way, and all the anxieties that flood around in bleaker moments, when the dissonance is greatest.  It’s not at all easy to live laxly; one is often contracted in the tight grip of worry.


The whole question that we fooled around with before, about whether what happened was an accident, that colliding of bicycles, is still with me.  Many people hint to me that it was part of some kind of design—everything happens for a reason, they say, as if that were consoling.  But there’s a real problem with the notion of “it’s either an accident or it’s by design,” that either/or really trips one up.  The truth of the matter is that it’s neither either/or—It’s neither accident nor design but something beyond, that somehow figures in language, or that language can almost but not quite capture, and my friend said, yes, you can only point toward it, and then he suggested the word numinous as a possible word to use, to think about, especially in the sense of creative power, not divinity.  What about that wordless something, whatever that is beyond either/or?  So we mulled over that for awhile.  The Greeks were struggling with this too: was it an accident that Oedipus happened to meet his father on the road, or Apollo’s design?  Well, it’s both. 


So in what sense could we be talking about a path?  Partly, it’s about a road that unfolds before you, depending on how you walk it and whether you let anyone guide you.  Oedipus needs his daughter Antigone to guide him after he has blinded himself; but on a path like mine, even as uncharted as it often seems to me to be, I need guides too—not just physicians and psychiatrists and health professionals who know about spinal cord injury, but people who love you, people who can see who you are when you can’t see yourself who you are, who can take you figuratively by the hand and (figuratively) walk with you, if you let them—but you have to let them at the same time as you are creating the path yourself. 

Was it design—the accident, the pneumonias, every small and large bump along the way?  For the Greeks, Apollo’s whole plan becomes clear:  Oedipus’ suffering has meaning.   Of course, I don’t think there’s an Apollo up there pulling strings with my future or anyone else’s, but the sense of one’s hardships coming to have meaning when they’re understood as part of a path is still real—even if that path isn’t meant in any religious sense exactly, but a kind of laxly living into one’s own open future, guided in some gentle way as you feel your way along by those who care about you.   



Condition update, after the pneumonia has receded:  Back on the pacer 22 hours a day; can eat everything again, or at least everything he likes; back to energetic physical therapy; happy to have visitors again. Feeling restored clarity, which you can probably hear.  



1 comment:

norm said...

Brooke - thanks for this provocative post -
I think it can be argued that much of our human activity is a response to our inability to forecast the future. We're not really satisfied with living laxly. Certainly religion- we imagine deities (sorry to those I offend by this) to open the path for us.
We study the past because we assume a set of past circumstances will produce similar results. We write, we paint, we sing, we dance partly to explain our lives but also to try to comprehend what's next.
Science is our major response to dealing with unknown.
In the end though, does any of this work?. We can build up resources and skills and relationships as bulwarks against uncertainty, but in the end HDT was right - we have to live laxly.