A Series of Unfortunate Rationalizations

I read a column today in my local paper, the Omaha World Herald by Janice Gilmore. It is titled; Even a red bird can be a miracle. In it she discusses events surrounding her sister Sondra’s death.
She begins by stating;

“Sometimes, as Christians, we ask God for a miracle and when He grants it we are shocked. We often call it a coincidence and don’t give God His due.”

She then goes on to explain how she was talking to her sister, Sondra, who could only listen because her illness left her unable to speak;
“I said to her, “Sondra, listen very carefully: Send me a red bird so I’ll know you’re OK.”

She then goes on to say that she knew God would be the one to make it happen and that she knew that if she saw one within a reasonable time after Sondra’s death she’d feel that God had granted her request.

She relates how she looked in earnest after her sister’s death for that red bird. She wondered to her brother-in-law if three red parrots which she’d seen on TV were the sign from God, saying;

“So eager for a sign, I immediately latched on to the parrots.”

But he persuaded her to look “outside”.

She then tells the story how the “real” red bird sent from God appeared;

“Back in April, my other sister was feeling despondent over our sister’s imminent death. In helping her to organize things in her home, I ran across an inspirational article that Sondra had sent to her in 1988. I decided to take it home and make a copy for myself and give her the article from Sondra to read again after 22 years.

I took it home, misplaced it, and eventually forgot about it.

One week and three days after my sister died, I was cleaning our bedroom. Although I had neglected the room because of my emotional turmoil, I didn’t immediately start housekeeping. Instead, I was moved to pick up a basket filled with papers and sort through them. At the bottom was the article Sondra sent to my other sister.

When I picked it up, much to my astonishment, the title of the article was “The Redbird” by Ronnie McIntosh. It had a picture of a bird on the front that I know was probably red before she copied it in black and white in 1988. Sondra had written encouraging notes all around the border. I was rendered speechless! God had sent the red bird in a way to leave me no doubt that it was straight from Sondra. For all of this to jell, God had to prompt Ronnie McIntosh to write this article in 1988 and give it that title. Sondra had to send it to my sister. My sister had to keep it for 22 years. I had to find it in April and basically not pay any attention to the title because the timing wasn’t right. I had to take it home and tuck it away. And then I was directed to find it again at the right time, very close to Sondra’s death.”

Here we have a woman who is grieving, in emotional turmoil, desperate for the sign from God that she herself had insisted that He would send her. She, herself, tells of how desperate she was to find this self-fulfilling sign by being willing to accept three red parrots on TV as that sign. If this isn’t a setup for wish fulfillment, I don’t know what is.

For her to not see the sign of the red bird, especially in this time of sorrow when she felt she needed God’s comfort most, would have been a direct challenge to her faith. The cognitive dissonance here is pretty much overwhelming and, unless one had supreme control over their emotions and faculties for reason, there really could be only one outcome: the red bird had to appear.

The mental acrobatics and irrational hoop jumping that she eventually had to engage in to realize her self-fulfilling prophecy is a classic, if somewhat extreme, example of wish fulfillment.

My intention here is not to belittle her emotions or her belief in God, but to illustrate the lengths we will go through to resolve cognitive dissonance that plagues all of us. In this case, she herself created this extreme cognitive dissonance for which there was only one resolution. I’m sure that if she hadn’t have found that article, something else would have presented its self with the same mental gymnastics being performed to make the circumstances fit the desired outcome.

She ends with the following:

“Though the whole article was very inspirational, one sentence jumped out at me: “I believe the bird was sent by God to show me the truth, for God always gives us what we need.”

God does. He always gives us what we need.”

I don’t know about God, but we, as humans, certainly know how to give ourselves what we need, even if that means creating a maze of rationalizations to quell the disquiet that cognitive dissonance creates in all of us. The more we understand cognitive dissonance, the better we can see it in ourselves and guard against it.

Now, you probably are thinking, “How did this hurt her?” In this case, it didn’t. It gave her comfort. But if we can deceive ourselves in harmless situations like this, what happens when we are presented with cognitive dissonance about something that could have a much more profound effect?

What if we are told that we have cancer and that a difficult regime of chemotherapy, radiation and/or surgery is required to remove it, but we fear these treatments, and the possibility of death, so much, that cognitive dissonance is created in our minds, causing use to latch onto alternative treatments? This is all too common and the results are usually deadly. Real, effective treatment is postponed in favor of alternatives such as homeopathy or naturopathy, so that, by the time we realize they aren’t working, it is too late.

We all must learn to recognize and overcome cognitive dissonance with reason and critical thinking even in little, harmless things. By learning to flex our critical thinking muscles with light weight issues, we prepare ourselves to confront the larger ones that can really do us harm.


4 thoughts on “A Series of Unfortunate Rationalizations

  1. Good article Jay. Though I would tend to disagree that finding the paper did her no harm. Unfortunately she now believes even more strongly that a god led her to that article that her sister wrote. It entrenched her belief more firmly and anchored it because she was in such a highly emotional state at the time.

    May is suggest that, for your readers who are not aware, you write an article on cognitive dissonance: what it is and how it can affect even skeptics? I think that would be a great informative piece.

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