In Praise of Cognitive Dissonance
For years, I had a quote pinned up on the wall of my workspace attributed to congressional historian Daniel J Boorstin: “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance, but rather the illusion of knowledge.”
With Mercury about to station retrograde October 4th, this is the ideal time for me to deliberately relax my grip on certainty, check my reality compass and make some room for discovery.
I’d like to share with you something of my respect for disillusionment – the loss of illusion. Discovery is an essential part of any plot, from clues in a murder mystery, to trust (misplaced, real or withheld) in a romance, geographic exploration in an adventure, or finding inner strength in the Hero’s Journey. While the need for profound discovery is always present in our stories, the context for the discovery is infinitely changeable.
Perhaps the first important variable is the protagonist’s own attitude toward discovery. That could be the beginning of his character arc: he may believe he doesn’t need to change, or that he is self-sufficient. He may believe a situation is hopeless. He may believe he is not worthy of love. Discovery is where the story gets really interesting!
An altruistic young person, full of optimism and naïveté, might believe that his altruism is a good thing, and should never change. He approaches the world of commerce as if everyone were as honest as he is. That person soon finds out that altruism, if it is to be a kind influence in his life must be tempered with realistic caution.
While I rhapsodize about the profound value of cognitive dissonance, I don’t enjoy the pain and sadness (or embarrassment!) I can feel when a cherished belief proves to be false. I believe emotional pain is probably the worst teacher of reality – certainly one of the harshest. The problem is that so often it’s the only teacher left to us because we’ve rejected kinder ones. We can be so damn stubborn about what we’re certain is true.
When faced with a discovery that disrupts his personal view of reality, a character can stay focused on his lost belief or welcome his new knowledge. This is great material for the character arc, because the transition is seldom easy, in novels or in real life.
In the case of Shepherd Bucknam, the protagonist in my new novel The Companion, disillusionment is a great but pain-inducing ally, in two particular instances. When the story begins, he doesn’t see any need for him to change. Privately, he carries a bitter disrespect for his dead alcoholic mother, believing that she didn’t really love him. He is also afraid that a recurring nightmare foretells his violent death.
In both these matters he discovers that what he thinks is true is not true at all, and the shock of discovery opens him to new experience and real growth as a human being. What happens next? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find out!
And I sincerely hope you do…
An earlier version of this post appeared first on Tara Lain’s blog.