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Cognitive Dissonance

Raise your hand if your plans included a war-waging dictator in a nuclear era. 

It comes as a surprise — remembering that universal suffrage only became the norm in the democratic world in the last 100 years.

It was going nicely. The simple concept of one person, one vote, was a striking development in the 2,500-year-old history of democracy. Although far from perfect, it had an immeasurable impact in convincing us, even non voters, of our power as individuals.

Never had such a compelling principle of secular empowerment been floated, or captured everyone’s imagination in such a sweeping way. Now, even North Korea calls itself democratic. Until then, the world had been under the umbrella of monarchs and priests.

It was when that power was receding, and individual centered power seemed to be on the rise, that Einstein predicted the religion of the future would be akin to Buddhism (whose followers don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity).

We may not be quite ready to get to a universal Self yet, lying at the other shore of our individual personality. In fact, many of us would prefer enlightenment to be another feather in our (individual) cap. So, meanwhile, Democracy has become the secular religion of the day, stripped-down of divine linkages, other than freedom — for the pursuit of happiness.

Still, it became as worth defending, as the religions of yonder. It’s had its own crusades — to liberate Europe from Hitler, and then in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, from their oppressors. Democracy was worth NATO, the Cold War, and the nuclear deterrent. “Freedom” became the thing.

For a few decades, the world has experimented with the social pact (the majority would decide what is allowed or desirable). It has afforded extraordinary freedoms to ordinary citizens, particularly in the more economically developed countries.

Tolerance of minorities grew, and many were able to live as they liked. The American dream, that has become the dream of many outside the US, predicates that, left alone, within the rule of law, you could achieve any heights. Contrast that with the limitations of past eras. But are we really equipped to live the dream?

As the credo of individual empowerment has grown, we increasingly want to be left alone, with our deeply held beliefs, whatever they are. Essentially, they are, that if we’re not subject to intrusions, we can thrive. We would like to have the freedom to look, or not look, away from ourselves, and to exercise compassion — if we want. We can even become Buddhists.

Enter global warming, a global pandemic, nuclear power in the hands of wanton dictators. What a nuisance. We don’t want such impositions on our utopia.

Thirty years ago, in a book called The End of History, liberal democracy, the economic and political practice whereby everyone operates individually within a free market economy, was supposed to create an utopia, unencumbered any longer by a Cold War.

No higher level of societal evolution could be reached, argued the admittedly daring, but well-known book. It made no reference to the also present element of hypocrisy in the espousal of democracy, for the sake of power.

The apparent end of the enmity between Russia and the US was like the fulfillment of a prophecy — the promise of Heaven on Earth, stemming from minding our own business.

Whether seated on our individual yoga mats, in our individual home, at the table with our individual family, with our individual group, political party, or at our distinct place of worship, we were sure to succeed — as long as we were left alone.

A collective mess is so distracting, so disturbing, and contrary to our deepest held beliefs, that we may refuse to look at it. This process has an exotic name: cognitive dissonance.

It may be another name for the lack of maturation of the individual power. At this stage, our expectations of freedom have morphed. Now, we may not like politicians or people who challenge what has gone, often, from a wondrous sense of all possibilities, to a sense of total entitlement.

Our default attitude has often become to doubt or dismiss the information we don’t like, if it impinges on our ability to dream on. We may resist it tooth and nail. Who is coming up with all these impositions, we ask. Who profits from a pandemic? Is Putin alone responsible for the war in Ukraine? Who is going to sell weapons to counter him? Is his invasion all that serious? Does it matter to us?

These are not trivial questions, the answers may not be as clear-cut as one might like, but the discussion may miss the point — that the house is on fire. A search for culprits and a deeper truth, isn’t going to be effective, if it acts as a cover for our cognitive dissonance. Doesn’t it feel most of all childish, when we can´t accept the loss of our candidate?

The sense of entitlement, to everything we want, seems like the adolescence of individual power. It’s a dangerous time. Putin did not go into Ukraine with peace-keepers to defend those in love with mother Russia, and it is not part of a divine plan, unless we are nihilists. If we believe in free will, it is a tragic imposition on freedom, in Ukraine, and for the world.

We still have our hopes and beliefs. Ukrainian convictions drive the resistance to Russian tanks. Elsewhere the hope is that this will boil over. No one wants, or is ever prepared for, real upheaval — especially after a century of successes and excesses on behalf of freedom? Who has time for this!?

It may boil over soon, hopefully. Or, we may all get the time. Our testy brand of individual realities might be confronted. In the face of a rude awakening, we may finally need to question our assumptions — about our individually centered utopia or the arrival of the end of times (some people sold their houses and went for a holiday before December 2012, the end of the Mayan Calendar).

A world with nuclear weapons is not safe. A world in a global warming process is not safe. A world where a virus can spread like wildfire is not safe. To get out of the present conundrum, we may not need abandon our faith in our individual power, but to unfold its ultimate possibilities.

Maybe we need to stop wanting to be left alone and be able to be alone, in ourselves. Stand fully in our power to reset ours and the collective consciousness. Maybe Einstein was on to something.

We of course need to abandon our wish to impose our hopes or evasion on reality, and acknowledge the situation. Good scientists question all their assumptions.

Most of us are not willing to let go of the premises that make up our individual identity, but we may be forced to gain some humility and greater balance, and yes, Self-reliance, in real enlightenment.

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