Café Conversation: Post-hoc Justifications (or How we Manage that Ol’ Cognitive Dissonance)

Posted: 20 December 2010 in Faith and Life
We met in a café downtown.  An old friend.  The kind with whom you don’t have to skirt around the real issues. Very little small talk.  Like me he was aging.  Grandchild. Change the only constant.


I could see he was anxious, distracted.  But, as always he focused in pretty quickly and, again, as always drove pretty quickly right to the heart of where his thinking was.  I mostly listened but pretty much knew where he was going (like I said, an old friend).


His life had not reached a dead end per se but he had this growing sense that he had worked his “last real job” and that he would spend considerable time from here on out “on the shelf” or sniffing around for opportunities to “stay relevant”.  He hesitated with that latter admission: being “relevant” was not something he felt was critical but… he also admitted that, as a white male he had long ago been socialized to believe that relevance was critical in one’s work… in one’s life.  He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t shake it.


I asked how he was managing this new found reality and that question really got us down to the heart of it all.  He leaned forward, almost as if he was worried that someone might hear.  Almost as if he was afraid I might hear.  Almost as if he was afraid he might hear.  This was an admission of something that had danced around in his mind for a long time.  I inched closer.  Our heads almost touching.


“Frankly, I am dealing with it the way I always have.  I am building a case for why it is the greatest thing ever.  I am spinning it so I look pretty responsible, forward looking, intelligent.  I am finding writings that justify (in rather glowing terms) every decision I am making.  Just like I used to.


I mean, when the arc of my career was heading up—and it did for a long time—I harbored doubts.  I often wondered if my noble acts were all that noble.  But it was easy to find lots of people who supported everything I did.”


I stopped him with a wave.  “You are being too hard on yourself.”


He gave a “yeah really” smirk and waved me away.


“No, no… I know myself pretty well by now” (I knew he did—knew all too well).  “I have been doing it for years—hiding the misgivings while I collected the evidence I needed to keep moving in the direction I wanted to go.  It was not evil but it did silence (or drown out) the alarm bells clanging in the back of my head.


Now… well, I have not got much.  No real opportunities.  No big plans. No big ideas. Nothing to defend.  Except my own sense of importance.  And so I am doing the same old same old.  Digging up a bunch of writers, a bunch of thinkers, who justify my newly found anti-institutional rhetoric.  Finding others who support my new spirit of “giving back”, living locally, being aware of limits… All that stuff I am just so passionate about now.  Can’t help but thinking it is all so much post-hoc justification.”


We sat in silence for a long moment.  Then we both leaned back at the same time—sighing together.  Conspiring, I suppose.


Truth was on the table.  Not much more to do with it at that point.  We started gathering our things.  We had “important” things to do.  Shook hands.  Knowing we would meet again soon.  Pretty certain of that in fact.


  1. Sue Glassford says:

    Sigh, yes, yes and yes.

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