Weathering Storms

“Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world in exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.”
~Bill Watterson on Hobbes

The other day I was practicing a hobby of mine, contact staff twirling. This flow sport differentiates itself from regular staff in that the staff is longer and covered in grippy rubber. The grip aids in passing the staff from hands to forearms, shoulders, back, chest, or anywhere the practitioner can manipulate it. It involves careful finesse, precise timing, and no small amount of hand-eye coordination.

During this particular session, I struggled immensely to perform techniques that I’d begun to attain proficiency in a few days prior. I quickly became agitated, denigrating my failures and questioning my apparent regression of skill. I was in a storm of cognitive dissonance.

At the beginning of the session, I believed I was of a certain skill level. I held an expectation about myself, my ability. Abiding by the flawed paradigm of identity, I regarded skill as an enduring quality that strengthened, but never atrophied. I expected to only keep improving.

The reality of the situation was that I was not so skilled on that particular afternoon. Clearly I wasn’t. I was fumbling, erring, and mistiming maneuvers. These are not the actions of a skilled practitioner. My dissonance lay in the belief that I was at a certain level of proficiency, and the evidence in my performance proved I was not. I was forced to accept that I had regressed.

But that’s okay. Talent is not awarded unilaterally. Some days we aren’t on our game. Some days we falter. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, and sometimes it’s one step back.

Once I was aware of my condition, and its transitory nature, I relaxed. I was relieved of the notion that I was in some way faulty for the mistakes I was making. I was free of the pressure to be something that I clearly was not. And I spent the rest of my time having fun with what I could practice.

That day, frustration was the emotion manifested by my cognitive dissonance. But other emotions can surface as well. Regret, disappointment, anger, and denial are a few. Each has cognitive dissonance as its catalyst. I can’t remember feeling any of these adverse emotions without there being an associated misconception of the world to spark it.

The flora of our minds create the atmosphere of our lives. But external realities occasionally impinge on that, sometimes sending unexpected cold fronts, heat waves, and thunder clouds which create hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, and droughts. Cognitive dissonance is a sudden change in the weather of the mind. Sometimes the storms that result tear up the existing plants. In such cases, new ideas sprout in place of the old ones. Sometimes our beliefs are too deeply rooted, and stubbornly hold firm despite frequent, raging storms.

The intensity of the emotion brought on by cognitive dissonance is proportional to the attachment to the belief being contradicted. A professional athlete will likely be more frustrated dropping a pass than someone playing a casual game in the park. Failing a high school math exam probably evokes less regret than missing the chance to pet your dog one last time. Learning their famous key lime pie is not unanimously beloved is probably less disappointing to someone than learning their loved one has run away with an Olympic gymnast.

The contradictions we face when someone presents an opposing viewpoint are signals of cognitive dissonances. To preserve the harmony of our lives, we often reject these oppositions flat out without even fully considering their validity. But occasionally these comments build up and someone will say something to us, or something will happen to us, that we cannot deem irrelevant so easily. It is in these moments that we face the conscious choice to maintain the status quo, or to adopt a new way of thinking.

This is a fundamental mechanism of the human brain; to constantly check new experiences against ingrained beliefs. That dichotomy of the brain is what grants it its superlative adaptability, its capability to respond to changes in its environment. As we age, neural plasticity gives way to neural petrifaction, and it becomes more difficult to override our entrenched beliefs. This is a physiological consequence of the way our brains function.

The onset of cognitive dissonance is subtle, like a change in wind direction. By the time a storm hits, we are often too hunkered down against it to reduce its intensity. We are too overwhelmed by the prevailing emotion to escape it.

But if you can maintain your self awareness, then in situations of frustration, regret, disappointment, or anger, you can question the source of that emotion. Ask yourself why. And don’t satisfy yourself with virtuous explanations that merely affirm your character. That can be an illusion created by your mind to maintain the pattern of thought being threatened by contradiction. It might be your ego preserving itself, and it can leave negative emotions unresolved, set to go off at the next trigger Questioning yourself is uncomfortable, but it opens your mind to new patterns of thought that might lead to greater well being in the long term.

When it comes to beliefs, be fluid. Especially about yourself. Especially about individuals. Society as a whole, the world as a whole, the universe as a whole, won’t change rapidly. Our perceptions of these things don’t require such mental flexibility. But smaller pieces of the universe are more unpredictable, more likely to belie our ideas about them.

This includes lovers, family, and friends most of all. But it also includes the many strangers and acquaintances you’ll interact with in your life. The ability to flow with the inconsistencies of others is what grace and patience are made of. These are invaluable virtues, and knowing how to occasionally tweak your perception of reality to suit its subjective nature is the way to foster them.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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