Cognitive dissonance is often used to call attention to something we would really prefer to ignore. Have you ever listened to someone prattle on about the partner who is “ever so loving” except when they are threatening your friend’s safety or emptying their bank account? Or when they are belittling a friend? To the point where you are ready to say “Well, you say this person loves you. Is that behavior loving?” And you of course hope this cognitive dissonance will get your friend thinking about whether this is truly a beneficial relationship. It is definitely useful, and we need to pay close attention to it.
But there is another type of cognitive dissonance that we also find difficult to process, and that is when someone who may not be so close to you has such diametrically opposed qualities that you are unsure what to think. I once had a young neighbor who was in trouble at school pretty much all the time. His mother’s excuse-making didn’t make it likely that these problems would end any time soon. And yet—one day this same young neighbor noticed fire coming from the exhaust of a school bus, and he was the one who raced to the front and banged on the door, hard, to get those kids out safely. Not the kind of heroism we would expect from “Mr. I’m Always in Trouble at School,” right? But the reality is, both can be true.
Famously, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) was a walking contradiction. He initially brought Jewish people into his factory during World War II for the free labor, then wound up protecting those same people from being deported to extermination camps. During this entire time, he was a member of the Nazi party. His life after World War II was reportedly a mess. All of these things are true, and for approximately 1,000 Jewish people and their descendants—these people would likely not even exist had it not been for Oskar Schindler’s virtues.
Realistically, none of us is as consistent as we would like to believe. If we feel our past is shameful, we can decide on a better future as opposed to labeling ourselves and giving up. The good we do need not be negated by whatever preceded it. We might even devote significant time to making amends.
Most of us tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in our lives. And part of that consistency can involve putting people in categories with the hope of knowing what to expect from them. My own experience leads to me believe that few of us are that totally predictable. There are some things we can count on: People who go out of their way to be kind will continue to do so, chronic liars and thieves are unlikely to suddenly grow a conscience about their behavior. And people and life will continue to surprise us.