When I watch TV, I'll admit, I am a channel changer. I am not the obnoxious kind (in my opinion anyway) that will change the channel while the show is still in progress, no, I hate commercials and will change the channel whenever commercials come on. When I realize commercials are on, I will flip through the guide and see if there is something else on that I want to watch while the commercials are on. After a little while, when I think my previous show might be back on, I will flip back to continue watching what I was before. Of course, DVR has helped with this quite a bit.
I have two thoughts about this. 1. When I watch TV sometimes (well, OK, usually) I am not fully present (however, this occurs much less now than it used to). I know that I am not fully present when I do not even realize that commercials have come on. I originally did not want to focus on not being fully present in this post, but my thought about it is that many people spend much of their lives not being fully present. I know when I was at church I was not usually fully present. If someone were to ask me what all was said in a sacrament meeting, I usually would not be able to tell you very much. I might be able to just convey the basic ideas I got out of it, but, by and large, I could not give a full account of what was said. After all, it is the same old stuff, all the time. Sound bite after sound bite of faithful blather is all you ever get at church. Deep thinking and discovery seem, to me, to be discouraged. Since I have awakened to the reality of what the church did to me, I am more present than ever. Words now mean things to me and I can recall with much more clarity everything that is said. I am more present because I am allowed to freely think about things, process them and draw my own conclusions. It sounds terrible, but I really didn't think very much for myself as a believing member of the church. In the church, the thinking has been done for you. Thinking was not required, so, I always had an excuse for not thinking. And, even though I was not fully aware of it, I liberally applied that excuse.
My second thought is about about channel changing. 2. When I change the channel, I am looking for something else. Something else that is more interesting than a commercial. I think there is something similar in our cognitive process, which we experience when we think, to changing the channel. The difference is that when I change the channel on TV to avoid the commercials, this is a passive process and I am only doing so to avoid a little discomfort (the subjecting of myself to advertising messages or poor quality television). When it is done in the mind concerning perceptions of reality, it is to avoid very real discomfort that the mind actually can not handle if the thought is dwelt on for too long. The signs of this are depression and a feeling of helplessness - at least unless and until the contradictory thought can be fully dealt with or dispelled. Sometimes we are under the illusion that we have dispelled all of our cognitive discomfort (or dissonance) but usually, at least in my opinion, if we are seeking to maintain a paradigm of thought at all costs, regardless of the discomfort it causes, we will only experience further symptoms.
Examples of changing the channel when cognitive dissonance is encountered in the church or its teachings include;
- Doing more of the stuff you think you are supposed to be doing to help dispel contradictory thoughts (e.g. home/visiting teaching, reading scriptures or conference addresses, saying prayers, devoting more time to callings, etc.) The thinking goes along the lines of; Satan must be putting these thoughts in my head to lead me astray, so I should do more to make sure I am holding fast to the iron rod so I can't be led astray.
- Personally attacking the person who is asking the question, or causing the uncomfortable thought to present itself. People who create cognitive dissonance in believing members of the church (and there are some of us who enjoy doing so ;), at least when they push the issue, are very frequently labeled as stirring up contention, being of the devil or angry. All of these essentially amount to personal attacks of the individual asking the questions of the believer. It is difficult for me to not be perceived as being angry when I am being personally attacked and put down, though.
- Thinking about something you have experienced in your life that you believe was proof of the principle in question (e.g. thinking about anytime something good happened when you paid your tithing or when you imagined that you felt the spirit really strong, etc.). Which leads to...
- Feeling the need to bear testimony of the topic or question. (Basically pronounce the truth of something without having to actually deal with the ramifications of it or think about it too much) This tactic is extremely popular in LDS circles.
I know there have been times that I have been engaged in a discussion (or a thought pattern) and will find myself jumping around in thought and argument looking for some place more comfortable. I know that when I believed in the church, and I actually was thinking, I did this quite a bit. The real awakening occurred for me when I had no where else to jump to for comfort (or to ease the cognitive dissonance) when thinking about what the church taught and what it must mean.
The problem is, many people do not recognize when they are doing this. If you had attempted to point out my jumping ways when I was a believer, I would have attacked you for accusing me of doing such a thing (usually via an ad hominem - or personal attack) because to point out such a thing would have been perceived to be a personal attack on me. However, anyone who accused me of doing such a thing would have been correct, I was just not ready or willing to hear it. To respond, I would have said things to point out some weakness in the character of the person that I have observed. I might have accused a person of being mentally unstable, or of being possessed by the adversary. I would have probably attacked something they have said that they believe or bring up some past action that was obviously a mistake and dwell on that to discount any point you may be making as having credibility. I might have even made such a personal attack out loud, but I would definitely be thinking it, which is another form of jumping away from the uncomfortable thought. I am much less inclined to engage in such personal attacks now, but it causes me to wonder how to prevent people from seeing such an observation (as mentally changing the channel on an idea) as a personal attack. I don't know if it is possible in many cases.
An example of changing the channel for me was when I encountered the question I asked myself, "Why does the Book of Mormon directly contradict statements found in the Doctrine and Covenants? (Like the teaching on Polygamy: The Book of Mormon says that David and Solomon's polygamy was abominable, but D&C 132 says it was condoned by The Lord) When I first endeavored to answer this question, I would not stay on point with an answer to address the contradiction directly. To do so would have been to say that either the Book of Mormon or Doctrine & Covenants must be wrong (or that God or Joseph Smith changed their mind). Rather, I would change the channel and jump to some excuse or try to find some loophole that could possibly explain the discrepancy.
One response to this particular question is that the Book of Mormon goes on to say that if the Lord decides polygamy is the way to go, he'll then condone it. Even though this point could possibly be considered, it declares that polygamy is definitely an eternal principle with God (and all that this means) and, it begs the question, does the Lord change his mind on polygamy then and what is it that causes him to say it's ok for some but not ok for others? Answers to these questions needed to be answered for me to experience congruence on the question of polygamy (and the apparent contradiction), but neither can be answered with any certainty by church leaders or correlated publications. I had to say "I don't know" the answer to either question. This either meant it was not important (if it was not important then why am I giving so much of my time to the group that is proclaiming such things?) or not necessary for me to know. Neither conclusion satisfied me.
It is rather easy to jump away from a specific question at hand (and not deal with the particular ramifications of it), when you have trained yourself to do it, but, I do not think it is healthy. I think, done too much, this sort of jumping around to find something to latch on to, to preserve our foregone conclusion (or faith), only creates dis-ease or neglect in other areas of our mental lives. However, I am not prepared to say that believers are unhealthy, because I think this is impossible to say for certain in all cases, but I can point to findings that make it easy to conclude that Utahns are more depressed than the rest of the country and commit suicide in larger numbers than anywhere else in the country.
So what is it that causes us to jump away from things, or change the channel of thought in our mind, and why is it so hard for some to recognize that they are engaging in this behavior?
I think what causes us to jump in thought from one thing to another is mental conditioning that we perfect throughout our lives to maintain our belief structure. We become experts at avoiding having to address the question at hand (that contradicts our belief structure in some way) in our thoughts, by jumping to the next topic. This is actually kind of amusing to witness, when one is aware of what is going on. It happens with frequency in LDS sunday school. The teacher or participant may pose a question that could be considered a contradiction to doctrine or difficult thing to answer because it would require speculation in addition to what is actually printed in the correlated manual.
I experienced this first hand one time when, during a lesson on early church history, the teacher asked why Joseph might have experienced so much persecution. Of course, I was thinking that all his persecution was mostly made up when he claimed to experience it early on, but, if he did actually experience any real persecution, maybe it was because he was generally regarded by his community as a charlatan, and was even convicted in a court of law for scamming people. I decided to actually voice my thought in class that perhaps the reason Joseph claimed to experience such persecution is because he was convicted in a court of law for being who people claimed he was. The channel changing that ensued after I made my comment was incredible to behold. One person claimed that everybody that accused Joseph of such activities was falsely accusing him. One person claimed that his good works far outweighed anything bad that people perceived he might have done and another went on to say that it was his treasure seeking that enabled to him to believe that he could be led to the golden plates.
All of these answers were a form of changing the channel to deal with my comment. Nobody wants to dwell too long on the fact that after Joseph Smith claimed to have seen God and Jesus that he engaged in the practice of acting as a seer for people who were seeking buried treasure. This thought is just too painful because it might call into question the kind of person Joseph Smith was and might cause us to ask, did he really see what he claimed to see or was he a confidence man (or con artist)? This question is much too painful, so we need to quickly change the channel and either bear our testimony of the divinity of Joseph's calling as prophet of the restoration or move on in some other way.
I have gone on long enough. Go ahead and change the channel now. May we all find comfort in our thoughts and may they be cognitively congruent. In the name of cheese and rice, Amen.