It’s Time For a Revision: An Addendum

In any given situation, behavior can be at odds with one’s feelings about the situation. In such cases, people become discontent and seek ways to make their behavior and feelings consistent with each other. The condition–known in psychology as “cognitive dissonance”–is solved by either changing one’s behavior or changing one’s attitude towards it. Frequently, the chosen response is to adjust one’s attitude rather than trying to change one’s circumstances.

People have cognitive dissonance in connection with a great many things because, sadly, things are not always as we wish them to be.  We rationalize and make excuses, always hoping that if we keep re-framing, we can set things right. But many times, the situation is what is wrong, so that is what must change.
the Door

Recently, I came to realize that I’ve had cognitive dissonance  in regard to my career, and decided that it was time to do something about it.

Yet I have continued to wonder why it has taken me this long to seek out alternatives, and I think that maybe I’ve found an answer. A classic psychological study demonstrated that the more invested one feels in a situation, the less likely one is to abandon it and the more likely one is to try to change one’s attitude to fit. Such efforts to relieve the cognitive dissonance are not always successful. “It’s worthwhile, and a bit alarming, to ask how many…projects we fail to abandon – bad jobs, bad marriages, bad wars – because we think we’ve invested too much to turn back,” notes Oliver Burkeman, who writes about social psychology for The Guardian.

I’ve spent more than 15 years pursuing a career that I thought would bring the satisfaction of making a difference in the world. It hasn’t, and no amount of attitude adjustment is going to make it so. I had thought I’d invested too much to turn back, but my lay-off forced me to confront the absurdity of sticking with it. I see that clearly now.

I can close the door on this stage of my life. I’m ready to open a new one.

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Helping Hands

Near my home, there is an intersection of two busy roads where people beg for money. I drive through at least weekly. It is a rotating cast of characters. You have the disabled veteran, or the older guy who has “lost it all,” or the woman with the multiple kids she must feed. I can’t tell if they’re drawn there because it’s a particularly lucrative spot, or if panhandling has now reached the suburbs and intersections are the new street corner.

Only occasionally do I give some money. But I am always moved. I just don’t know how best to respond.

Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand. Sometimes what’s needed is a hand to hold.

Often, it’s hard to tell, at any given moment, which is needed more.
Helping hands

Last July, a friend of mine lost her partner to cancer. They’d been together only a few years, and both were married before. Essentially, she had stopped communicating during the last month of his life, and in the months following. I struggled to discern whether she needed help, and if so, what kind? What was the right help to offer?

Recently, a couple I know who are the parents of one of my son’s friends were struck by a car while crossing the street. When I first heard, my reaction was to be a part of their support network. But as each day led to the next, and the struggles of my own life claimed my attention, their need became less pressing. They have mostly recovered now, and I didn’t even stop by their house. Was that the best thing to do?

Twelve years ago, my life derailed when my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm while carrying our second child. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat the details. With hindsight, though, I can see that during her recovery, I was facing  grief, traumatic stress, the normal demands of raising small children and earning a living, and serving as my wife’s primary care-giver, all mixed together. My needs changed constantly, even several times a day. I could never, while immersed in it, say with any certainty whether I needed a helping hand or a hand to hold. Honestly, at times it was probably both simultaneously, while at other times neither. Often, when people asked if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t say because I just didn’t know.
sadness

What is the “right” response? How can anyone tell what another person needs, and when they need it?

In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman say that while it natural to want to help, compassion is not without complication.

“We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence,” they write. “We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness…. There are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try.”

In spite of the complete mystery of it, sometimes people do do the right thing. That December, when it all began to unravel for me, my wife’s former employer brought us a Christmas tree. I could not have said at the time that I needed it, but I deeply believe now that it was exactly the right thing for us.
Holding Hands

Contrary to what many may think, the helping transaction requires something from each party—both the helper and the helped are giving and getting. I was very bitter and angry when I was in need of help. I probably asked for less than I needed, and was less gracious than I could have been.

In contrast, I see a cheerful gratitude in the couple recovering from the car accident. They feel lucky to be alive, which says so much about their approach to the event.

What had I to offer them? Maybe very little. Should I have done something? Probably.

Action is required, and compassion, and luck. “On this path we will stumble, fall, and often look and feel a little foolish,” say Dass and Gorman. But in the end, we’ve done what we could, and we “trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe.”