What We Decide Matters

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June 29, 2022


What We Decide Matters

Over the years I have become more and more aware of attitudes of pessimism, of social disconnections, denial of consequences throughout human societies. In many subtle, and at times, blunt ways, I have been reminded that what you (I) decide really doesn’t matter in the long run, by people desiring to push forward their own agenda. In some cases, this may be true: if I decide that I like a certain brand of cereal for breakfast over another, that decision has no significant impact on the future of human society. But is this true? Consider this: if I choose a cereal that is high in sugar, and low or, completely void of nutrients, this choice has an impact on my health. Continuing to consume foods with high salt and sugar contents, and low in nutrients can lead to a variety of life-threatening diseases, and an early death. I am a husband, a father, a friend, an earner of income, and (hopefully) a contributing member of society. My death, early or otherwise, has an impact on others – in the long run. Centuries ago, a Catholic priest and theologian, Saint Thomas Acquinas, in his Suma Theologia, promoted the idea that everything has a cause and effect, except God. God has no cause, God simply is.

If we accept that every effect has a direct (and indirect) cause, and every cause creates a new effect; we can begin to understand that attitudes, like those mentioned above, have a specific cause and a direct effect that becomes a cause in itself. An example often used to make this point is the “dropping a pebble in a still body of water. The pebble falls (cause – gravity) into a pool of water. The impact of the pebble on the surface of the water forces the water to separate allowing the pebble to sink below the surface (effect). The motion of the surface expanding causes the surrounding surface to be disturbed (cause) – ripples. Eventually, the energy created by the falling pebble is absorbed by the body of water and the surface returns to its original state of stillness. So, some would argue that the falling pebble had no lasting effect. But that is an incorrect presumption. There is also a fundamental principle of physics that states that two objects cannot simultaneously occupy the same space. More than two thousand years ago, a king Academies, put his crown into the bath water and noticed the water level rise or fall depending of whether or not the crown was in the water. The level of the water of the pool, into which the pebble was dropped in (in the long run) is now higher.

In the 1950’s (1957), psychologist Leon Festinger, a professor at the University of California, at Berkley, studied the mental impact of holding two competing ideas as true at the same time. His study identified an emotional stress when a person was encouraged to accept two opposite opinions simultaneously. This stress is identified as Cognitive Dissonance.[1] A result of this mental and emotional distress, a person will often attempt to resolve the conflict by adopting one as true and the other as false, or neither as having any importance. This conflict of ideas will either create a new paradigm, or re-enforce a previously held opinion. In the study by Dr. Festinger, he asked a segment of test subjects to take a rather pointless test, or survey. After the test was completed, the subjects were questioned about their rection to the test. Almost universally, they commented that the test was stupid and pointless. The test subjects were told that the University needed this test, and a broader base of test takers. Therefore, they were hired to go out and sell the “test” to their friends and acquaintances. They were paid a premium for every new test taker they could recruit.  After a period of time, the original test takers – the subjects of the research – were once again asked to voice their reactions to this “test”. Again, almost unanimously, they had changed their opinion and were very supportive of the necessity of the “test”. What caused the change? Was money the primary cause, or a contributing factor?

Dr. Festinger proposed that while the subjects were initially motivated by their job (i.e., money) to sell the benefits of the test, it was not the money that changed their minds. He argued that the more publicly involved the subject became involved with selling the test, the more they tried to convince other students to take the “test”; the more they became invested in their own sales pitch. The more often a lie is repeated by a person, the more deeply rooted that person becomes in the lie, to the point they no longer recognize the lie. For example, a person is tired of the boredom of a single sexual partner. They argue, at the beginning, that they aren’t really cheating if they seek out a prostitute. There is no relationship outside of the momentary physical relationship of the act. At first, the person is troubled by their conscience, but the thrill of activity continues to invite future episodes. Eventually the person sees nothing wrong in these extra-marital episodes and has no conflict of conscience. What happened – They sold themselves a lie! They no longer have any mental conflict because they have changed their moral center.

Growing up in a primarily Baptist tradition, we didn’t have the same language as Catholics; and I am not talking about Latin. As good Baptists, we didn’t listen to certain types of music, we didn’t go to dances, smoke or drink. Most importantly, we didn’t associate with those who did. We, as Baptists didn’t have a name for these occurrences, we just understood that they would lead us down a dark and sinful path. My wife, who grew up in the Catholic faith, was given a name for these very same occurrences – Near Occasions of Sin. Our religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, understood the nature of peer pressure and cautioned against surrounding oneself with evil influences. We, for most of us, are adults now, but the nature of peer pressure is still the same. We want our children to choose their friends wisely, and we should do the same. Just as Festinger’s experiment, mentioned above, constant association with specific groups of people does influence our beliefs and attitudes.

What we decide to do in our actions and words does matter because we re-enforce a particular behavior, good or not so good. If we continually tell ethnic jokes, we program our own minds to automatically think less of another ethnicity or culture. If we immerse ourselves in helping others, the infirmed and disabled, the poor, the undocumented, etc.; we can begin to see them as real people, and not just a cause. As a Baptist, we would criticize Catholics for trying to work their way into heaven. To our shame, we didn’t see Matthew’s Gospel passage of the Sheep and the Goats (Mtt 25:31-40) as speaking to us, that faith required more than just believing in Jesus (Jn 3:16); accepting him as our Lord and Savior. Faith required actions – work – as well as trust in God’s mercy (Jms 2:14-24).


[1] Cognitive dissonance

Mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information. Relevant items of information include a person's actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things in the environment. Cognitive dissonance is typically experienced as psychological stress when persons participate in an action that goes against one or more of those things. Wikipedia