Editor’s Note:  This article was written in February 2011  but its message continues to be relevant today…..

Today: Bill Maher, Civil War reenactments, Winter’s Bone, cognitive dissonance and the forces creating your personal evolution. Are you ready?

Consider this – to some degree, opposing forces are always moving through our consciousness creating a tension that ensures we move forward in our personal development. I’m reminded of the quote by F Scott Fitzgerald – “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” All of us have access to a first-rate intelligence.

Cognitive Dissonance

In psychology, the uncomfortable experience of holding two conflicting opinions or thoughts is referred to as cognitive dissonance. Psychologists have done extensive research and come up with numerous theories about how we seek to deal with this discomfort. No matter what the theory, ultimately how we respond to the uncomfortable feeling can lead to either a healthy positive outcome (such as letting go of an old belief that we now see is no longer true) or an unhealthy negative one (such as denying the validity of one of the conflicting ideas).

Think of the tension created in some Christians minds between biblical passages seeming to condemn homosexuality and their loving positive experience of friends and family members who are gay and desire to marry. Most have dealt with this dichotomy by letting go of the idea that every word put in the Bible over 2000 years ago must have relevance today. Others who cannot accept that fact go to great lengths to deny gays their rights as humans.

But sometimes our growth comes not from resolving the differences to relieve the discomfort but rather staying with the tension so we may move to a new place in our awareness where both ideas can exist and be valid simultaneously. Here lies the space for great leaps in our development. Two different programs I watched on TV last night reminded me of this fact.

Bill Maher and the Civil War

I love watching Bill Maher’s TV show. He’s funny, smart and generally makes me think. I frequently agree with his opinions – but not always. Sometimes I imagine telling him where and why he’s wrong on an issue – my desire to enlighten him, I believe, is motivated by a sense that he “should know better” given his other beliefs. There are some TV show hosts that I judge to be so far off the mark in their values that I can’t even imagine trying to get them to see things “my way”. Yeah, I know, that’s my issue!

In any case, last night Bill Maher closed his program with a rant on Civil War reenactments by Southerners. His funny point – we all know that the Confederacy was fighting to uphold slavery and they lost – why would you want to celebrate the memory of fighting for a negative cause on which you didn’t even succeed? He equated it humorously at one point to reenacting an unsuccessful sexual experience – why go celebrate something you’d rather forget? Funny stuff.

Of course, Bill only sees one side of this issue – slavery is wrong and it deserved to be defeated. No argument on that. What Bill can’t see because he didn’t grow up in the South is how these people may be using Civil War reenactments for something other than celebrating a losing war fought for an inhumane purpose.

I grew up in the South and had to face in my feelings the dissonance created by two opposing forces. I experienced firsthand in my white youth the impact of segregation – separate restrooms, separate water fountains, separate seating areas, separate movie theaters, separate areas of town in which to live. Something in me knew this was wrong and questioned it every chance I got. People should be treated equally and have the same rights and opportunities. Beyond this, the slavery I read about in history books was definitely a bad thing! The Confederacy losing was definitely a good thing!

Yet on the other hand, there was this internal sense of identity with my neighborhood, my town, my county, my state. And, as an extension of that, an identification with “the land I grew up in” being a part of the Confederacy. I never could really put my finger on that feeling until as an adult I viewed Ken Burns PBS series “The Civil War”. At one point in the show a historian comments that one outcome for the South after the war was that those growing up there would always feel the sense of coming from a country that lost a war. Hearing that statement, I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve spoken with others who grew up in the South and had the same feeling.

So here’s the tension – all people should be valued and treated equally, slavery as well as discrimination based on race is simply wrong, it was a good thing that the South lost the Civil War – yet, because the South lost the Civil War, if you grew up there then you may have a sense of identifying the country of your youth (at least in part) as being one that lost a war and having another country impose itself upon you. Believe me – I recognize that unless you grew up in the South and experienced this feeling, it may be hard to understand.

To be extremely clear – I am not one that overly romanticizes the Confederacy or believes they should have won– the right outcome occurred. Slavery, then and now, is purely wrong. Nor am I saying that every person who may reenact aspects of the Civil War or memorializes things about the Confederacy may not be misguided in their intentions. I have no doubt that some who espouse continued southern sympathies may have racist underpinnings. Yet I can also understand why many Southerners can condemn racism in one moment while remembering and honoring the Confederacy in the next. On a certain level, these aren’t opposites.

The point I’m attempting to show is that one can hold what seem to be opposing viewpoints – and the holding of those viewpoints may serve you see things from a higher level. It’s okay to know that slavery is wrong and to be pleased that the Confederacy lost the Civil War while also feeling an identification with the South and it being a “country who lost a war”. I can honor my relatives who fought for an unworthy cause and be glad they lost.

By my holding these apparently conflicting feelings, I now get to grow above them to a greater awareness – one that allows me to both rightfully condemn slavery around the world and have a better understanding for individuals in other countries who have felt defeat. Holding both feelings has opened my heart to higher levels. I can identify and empathize with more people – expanding my circle of care and concern-evolving my awareness.

Winter’s Bone

The other program I saw last night was the movie “Winter’s Bone”. This was for the most part a depressing film about a 17-year-old girl named Ree in rural Arkansas raising her two younger siblings while also taking care of her emotionally incapacitated mother. She relies on the goodness of neighbors and relatives for food and money to get by. Ree pushes her brother and sister to do well in school recognizing that it’s key to moving beyond their life’s confines. All she has to fall back on is her house and land which are being threatened unless her missing father shows up for his court date – he used the property for his bail.

The movie follows Ree’s attempt to locate her father, dead or alive, so as to keep her house and family together. You can see something pushing her from within to outgrow this limited backwoods existence – maybe if she could join the Army, get an income and see the world? You can also see her family pulling her to stay and help take care of everyone.

As she navigates around this rural world where everyone appears to be a relative, close or distant, you see her rising up and wanting something more out of life then we can sense in those around her. Again, I understood personally her dilemma. My upbringing as a youth in the South certainly was more affluent than Ree and her relatives, but the movie did bring back memories of visits to rural relatives who had a similar subsistence lifestyle. I felt a push to move beyond the limits of my southern youth while wondering how some friends and family seemed content with a life that to me appeared constricting.

Why is it that some people such as Ree and myself desire growth and expansion beyond the lifestyle of our youth while others appear content? Sometimes it appears that certain people seek vertical growth while others desire to experience life horizontally – that is, fully immersing themselves in their current positions in life and not pushing to grow beyond them.

Our Evolution

I used to believe that there were exactly these two kinds of people when it came to personal growth – the vertical growth oriented and the horizontal “assimilators”. That’s not to say that everybody at some point in their life doesn’t experience both vertical upward movement or horizontal assimilation of life’s lessons. My thought was that each of us tended to favor one direction or the other – people were different and my choice for expansive upward growth was obviously better.

Yet now I see that there is a perfection in the fact that some people seek upward momentum while others prefer treading life’s water. It’s not an “either-or” situation – it’s an “and”. If everyone were either moving vertically or horizontally, there would be no contrast by which to gauge growth. The perception of Ree and myself of those who appear stuck in their limiting lives provide a backdrop for us to view and say to ourselves “I want better”. My growth is served by those who take a different approach. Similarly, I have heard from some people who can’t seem to comprehend the push for greater personal development and a life of broader experiences – seeing those lives motivates them to anchor into one place. Again, one approach serves the other.

There are forces playing out in your life and mine serving our growth. One of those factors that moves us to higher levels of awareness is the ability to see how opposing ideas and ways of being can both be seen as valid.

Where in your life are you experiencing contrasting ideas or desires that need to be assimilated into a combined worldview? Where are you feeling dissonance?

Are you unhappy at your job but believe you can’t afford to change careers?

Do you love your significant partner while feeling stifled in the relationship?

Are you called to make a major change (where you live, your religion, letting go of long-held possessions, etc.) while feeling bound by tradition?

Do you believe you’re a positive person while still feeling concern about events on the planet?

Where is your healthy tension in life?

Maybe you can identify it immediately – maybe you’ll have to reflect upon it and be observant over the next week – but what I’m asking you to locate is that aspect of your experience where you are called to realize where two things that at first blush appear to be incompatible are really not – both are valid, both are true, both can coexist. When you identify the opposites, I encourage you to let go of any emotional attachment you have to one side or the other. Then ask yourself – “how does honoring both viewpoints serve my growth?” When you can resonate and live with the answer to that question, not only are you exhibiting a “first-rate intelligence”, you are evolving on your journey.

Finally, this leads us to the ultimate opposing tensions playing out on our evolutionary journey – we are simultaneously physically evolving human beings with worldly needs and spiritually evolving divine beings with higher callings. Living with and understanding that tension is answering that higher call. Ultimately, the push of our humanness and the pull of our spiritual nature unites us in our oneness- the ultimate destination of our growth

Mark Gilbert

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Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!