Monday, January 18, 2010

Let Cognitive Dissonance Teach You How to Resign Your Job as “Crash Test Dummy”

I received this email from someone, and after writing it *[my response], I decided that it would make a great blog post about cognitive dissonance. I also struggled with this myself in the early years after leaving my spiritually abusive church.
But, sad to say, my thinking has become tainted, I suppose, by reading the No Longer Quivering blog, where many, if not most, of the guest bloggers and commenters are former Christians. So, as I read about cognitive dissonance, I wondered if the whole Christian conversion experience can actually be viewed as being a result of cognitive dissonance taking its course, rather than being the work of the Holy Spirit.

You have to figure out who converted you and what they converted you into. Was it the Holy Spirit or the exploited desires of your own heart that talked you into getting out of your own driver’s seat? How much of what you learned was really true? What did you put up with but didn’t think was right? What did you think was truth at the time? What do you know now? You have a lot of work to do if you want to do it right -- to rebuild your spiritual house.

Watching some of the footage from the Haiti earthquake, it struck me that it might be an analogy for what it is like to rebuild your life after this kind of thing has rocked your world. It is painful, hard, and intimidating, but it does have its blessings. If the building or the foundation of your faith was flawed (and all of us do have such flaws), you have a chance to rebuild it right. As you do this hard work and “heavy lifting,” you gain some muscle.

First, consider that the word “repent” in derives from the Greek “metanoia” which is a compound word that translates literally into “a change of mind.” “Noia” means “to think with your mind.” Meta means “after” with the implication of “change” such as it appears in the English word “metamorphosis.” Actually, Romans 12:2 uses “meta” in the compound word “metamorphoo” for our English word of “transformed,” directing us to “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what (is) that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” 

 Consider that what you are doing after realizing spiritual abuse is the “process of proving,” the work that comes after the work of renewing your mind which brings transformation. The truth and the abuse pushed you to change your mind about the virtue of your abuser and the abusive system. IDEALLY, changing your mind should be an informed act of the will, given that you have enough time and resources to make your choices about the change. But consider that it is work if it is done in the right way and for the right reasons. Any change is work.

In this contrast that Paul paints for us, the passive component would be the process of being conformed. We are all going to be conformed to something, like we are riding a raft that is floating on the ocean. If we are not working and directing our course, we will be drawn and pulled and pushed by the water. In life our nature and the forces around us will take us somewhere. If we want to stay in a port, we have to tether ourselves to it. If we want to cross the Atlantic from Key West to get to England, we have to work to propel ourselves to the Gulf Stream which sweeps us up, ride it to the North Atlantic Drift, and then we have to break away from it before it sweeps us up into the Norwegian current. If we don’t correct our course, we can end up getting pulled down into the Canary Current, taking us to Africa. Or we can end up in Northern Russia. We have to figure out when and how to break free from the current to get to England. The efforts that we employ to keep us on course in a journey across the Atlantic are much like the work we must do to renew our minds. If we know the forces (manipulation, the affect of fluorescent light on the brain by way of vibration, human nature, willful intent to do good, loving one’s neighbor, the Holy Spirit moving on our hearts, thinking of “a few of our favorite things,” etc.), we can use them to help us get to where we are going, or we can navigate around them when we know they have a pull on us.

The surface currents of the ocean are neither good nor bad, and as the Bard said, “It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” As you sift through the rubble, keep this in mind. Some things are bad and some are good. Some things can be made to be one or the other.

Likewise, the forces that affect us that are aimed at changing our mind may be beneficial, harmful, neither, or forces that can be channeled for good like using the current on the ocean. We may encounter them by seeking them out and using them to “get us where we want to go.” They may creep upon us without our notice. But something will always be pulling and tugging at us, be they winds of warmth that lean on us on the cold shores of Scandinavia or the refreshingly cool trade winds that sweep over the Caribbean islands in the heat of the day. We have to do the work of choosing how we will allow these forces to affect us and whether they are greater than we are.

Cognitive dissonance is neither good nor bad either. It is a phenomenon that occurs during the process that we go through as our minds change, something that alerts us to the fact that change is taking place. Knowing what the process feels like becomes much like physical pain that tells us valuable information, keeping us safe alerting us to change and potential problems. Learn to think of cognitive dissonance as something like a grain of sand in your shoe or the prick of a tiny, thin thorn on the stem of a rose that you failed to see and avoid. It is a process that induces certain feelings and states of mind that give you information as your mind is changing in a way that you didn’t anticipate. When we learn to recognize it, cognitive dissonance gives us information about what is happening to us, and awareness of it can help us navigate around the thorns so we don’t get pricked and shake the sand out of our shoes before we get blisters.

Take a look again at what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2 (NKJV):
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Paul speaks about doing something with ourselves here. We are not just to float adrift in the world, allowing it to carry us to where it will take us as we float along. He tells us, in so many words, to pick a particular destination “to prove.” The word in Greek here is “dokimazo” which means “to examine, to scrutinize in order to see if a thing is true or not, to approve, to deem worthy.” So we are to report for duty, but that duty involves doing some work to keep our minds directed toward a certain goal. Figuring out where we are going involves processing information, and these verses imply that this process takes some effort. Like the captain of an ocean vessel who proves his course with navigation equipment that he continually assesses and evaluates so that he gets where he intends to go, so we have to monitor and evaluate our lives in the same way through the ongoing process of renewing our minds. The word for renewing here means a positive change for the better, a word that can also be used when describing a renovation of improvement on an old building.
So think of spiritual abuse as something that turned out to be a counterfeit for the real thing that slipped past our defenses. We became passive because we believed that we were actually choosing something that was going to help transform us by renewing our minds for the better. Welcome to the human race, though it is so terribly painful when you realize that you failed to identify a force of the world, mistaking it for God’s transforming power. Like all sheep learn, sometimes the wolves do a fantastic job at creating very convincing sheep’s clothing. Pat yourself on the back for learning to spot that wolf, and don’t fault yourself for your blindness. You know the truth now. Just get back to the work of scrutinizing and “proving the perfect from the good from the acceptable from the seemingly good from the abusive from the profane. It was always work and will always require work.

If you are concerned that your whole religious experience may have been a fraud, you have much work to do. Like our brothers in Haiti, sift through the rubble. Look at the old foundations of what you built upon. Were they sand or stone, and how deep did the stone run down into the ground? Choose a stable and sure foundation as you work to thoughtfully rebuild your new spiritual house. Set the cornerstones of your own choosing this time, taking the knowledge that you learned when you pulled away the curtain to see a little man standing there who’d postured himself as a demigod. You don’t have to pick what he tells you to pick. Do what the Word tells you to do: scrutinize your new foundation and prove it to be trustworthy, stable, and true yourself. Paul already told us what would be required of us when we reported for duty to be living sacrifices. We don’t become robots or tools who report for programming and algorithms about how to stay safe. We report for the work of proving (testing, scrutinizing, checking for authenticity) what God’s will really is by way of renewing our minds.

Reading the No Longer Quivering blog forces you to do the work, and if you actively choose your course, it can actually be an opportunity to sharpen yourself. You can go there to look and commiserate, but do not go into a passive mode like a crash test dummy. We’ve already been crash test dummies for our spiritual abusers, so don’t choose to strap yourself in to someone else’s car so that you are no longer in control of your course. You don’t have to make the same choices that Vyckie Garrison has made just because you identify with her experience and history. If you choose another course, that does not diminish you or her in any way on a personal level. I think that Vyckie would gladly affirm that, especially because she can strongly identify with those who have shared such common wounds.

None of us were ever meant to be someone else’s crash test dummy, and if we are reasonable people with a modicum of good will and empathy, we don’t want people to be mistreated like we’ve been. We want you to get out of other people’s test lab wrecks and start driving yourself. We want to help one another polish up our driving skills and get our own keys to our own cars. (We all have our preferred models that we like. We all pick our destinations, and we can choose to drive to Vyckie’s place or to our own. I drove to a different destination after careful consideration and choice.) You can certainly strap yourself into Vyckie’s car and let her drive for you, assigning yourself the passive role as her crash test dummy by conforming to her example without exercising your own will. But I don’t think she would want that for you any more than I do.

Watch and read everything of an ideological nature from a safe distance, and that will be work. When you get out of Doug Phillips’ or Voddie Baucham’s latest model, decide where you want to go. Lots of people leave Test Lab A and walk right into Test Lab B instead of walking down the road to driver training and their own cars (representing one's own directed will) that they left sitting in the parking lot. Maybe you’ve never driven yours, but it is there waiting for you. I hope you walk over to your car, and you might even think about trading it in for a new model. I’ve done it many times myself.

Here is another analogy: The wounds that you sustained as patriarchy’s crash test dummy will be quite similar if not identical to the wounds of the women on NLQ. We should be able to talk about how our wounds compare so that we can learn to better assess the nature of our own injury. Part of that process involves learning how the injury took place so that we can avoid injury in the future. None of us intended to be careless. In the same way that we can choose our new car model and where we will drive, we can choose our own healer. Sometimes the closest hospital that is the most convenient after you’ve been in a car wreck is not the best facility to treat your particular injury. Pick your own doctor, and go to the best hospital that you can.

Pick the means that you use to renew your mind. That is your choice, too. Choose the forces that you will use to get you to where you want to go. What are you going to put in your head?

Moses wrote that anyone who insists on using the law code to live right before God soon discovers it's not so easy—every detail of life regulated by fine print! But trusting God to shape the right living in us is a different story— no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah. So what exactly was Moses saying?

The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest.

It's the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God—"Jesus is my Master"—embracing, body and soul, God's work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That's it.

*[late entry]