Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Choosing Between Two Opposing Thoughts is Hobson's Choice

In the mid-1950’s, a doomsday cult of true believers in Chicago gathered at the home of Mrs. Marion Keech who was receiving mysterious messages in the form of “automatic writing” from alien beings on the planet Clarion. The most recent messages revealed that the world would end soon by a great flood. The cult members convinced themselves that by believing strongly enough in the prophecy, they would be spared, rescued by an alien spacecraft. They demonstrated their commitment by leaving jobs and spouses and colleges and giving away money and possessions.

Meanwhile, a psychology professor, Leon Festinger and his colleagues, had been working out a theory of cognitive dissonance that accounted for the tension that comes from holding two opposing thoughts at the same time. They predicted that the individual experiencing the tension of the dissonance would attempt to overcome it by rationalizing one thought in favor of the other. The word “dissonance” comes from sonare, meaning “sound,” and dis, meaning “to be apart from.” It is a metaphor from music describing unpleasant combinations of notes.

Festinger saw this cult’s belief in the prophecy as an opportunity to study how the cult members would rationalize the inevitable failure of the prophecy. He and his colleagues infiltrated the cult and reported their findings in a book published in 1956 entitled, When Prophecy Fails.

The great flood was to occur before dawn on December 21. On the evening of December 20 the members gathered at Mrs. Keech’s house, expecting a guide to come and direct them to the waiting spacecraft. In his book, Festinger reported the following sequence of events:

12:10 am. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than a few hours away.

4:00 am. The group has been sitting in silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.

4:45 am. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”

Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called, interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

While I am struck by the phrase, The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light… because I am well aware of the powerful effect of uniting and going inward with a common purpose, I want to continue with the argument that Festinger proposed--Two conflicting thoughts: the world will end, the world did not end. When it appeared that the prophecy would fail, great dissonance occurred, but it was overcome by the new belief that their dedication had saved the world because they spread so much light. And now they would reinforce this new belief by proselytizing their message.

Festinger was inspired to investigate the theory of cognitive dissonance as it presents itself moment by moment in our daily lives, accounting for much of the activity of our “monkey minds.” Dissonance occurs in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible thoughts, or cognitions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally compelling. For example, a habitual smoker is bombarded by information that smoking is extremely bad for your health. He finds himself saying, I must stop; I really want to smoke. These conflicting thoughts occur all through the day, producing almost unbearable tension. The rationalizing mind appears to offer some respite. He can rationalize not smoking with these thoughts:

My health will improve.
I will no longer experience shortness of breath.
My lungs will begin to clean out, and in time, will be normal.
I will save money.
I won’t have to put up with nonsmokers’ disdainful looks.
I will be free of being chained to a habit.

If these thoughts are acted upon, they produce a consonance, overcoming the dissonance. The word “consonance” also comes from sonare, and con, meaning “sounding together,” producing harmonies that are pleasing to the ear. But this harmony is only temporary if he is truly unable to stop smoking. And this could be justified in this manner:

Smoking is not really affecting my health.
I can still work effectively, in fact, quite well because I am more relaxed.
Smoking keeps me from gaining weight, and I can eat whatever I want.
I love the moment of lighting up.
I like hanging out with my buddies who smoke.
I’ve been smoking so long, I can’t imagine what it would be like not to.

Whatever side he takes, it appears that consonance trumps dissonance.

(Dear Reader, I urge you now to take a moment, look into your mind, and identify your most recent, or ongoing, attempt to find consonance in the face of two opposing thoughts.)

Thank you.

The only reason for taking such a hard look at this rationalizing behavior is that it is a major preoccupation that keeps us separate from God. We are preoccupying ourselves with thoughts that have no source in reality. Once again, we are caught in “egoland,” hostage to the ego, defending ourselves against God.

When I preoccupy myself, my small self that has no source in reality, with choosing between two alternatives, I have forgotten that this self allied with the ego has established a place in my mind separate from God. I have chosen to be hostage to the ego, yet Jesus tells me in His Course in Miracles:

I do not know the thing I am, and therefore do not know what I am doing, where I am, or how to look upon the world or on myself. T-31.V.17:7

And yet, I continue to defend my self against God by setting up two conflicting thoughts and spend my time rationalizing one thought over the other. Just look at the synonyms that describe this preoccupation to find consonance: justify, equalize, negotiate, mediate, compromise, bargain, compensate, adjust.

There is a tendency to think the world
can offer consolation and escape
from problems that its purpose is to keep.
Why should this be? Because it is a place
where choice among illusions seems to be
the only choice. And you are in control
of outcomes of your choosing. Thus you think,
within the narrow band from birth to death,
a little time is given you to use for you alone.

Jesus goes on to say:

Real choice is not illusion. But the world has none to offer.

Although consonance seems to trump dissonance, the truth is that


All its roads but lead
to disappointment, nothingness and death.
There is no choice in its alternatives.
Seek not escape from problems here. The world
was made that problems could not be escaped.
Be not deceived by all the different names
its roads are given. They have but one end.
And each is but the means to gain that end,
for it is here that all its roads will lead,
however differently they seem to start;
however differently they seem to go.
Their end is certain, for there is no choice
among them. All of them will lead to death.
On some you travel gaily for a while,
before the bleakness enters. And on some
the thorns are felt at once. The choice is not
what will the ending be, but when it comes.

Hence, the title of this article--you constantly face Hobson’s choice. The origin of this term is said to be in the name of one Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), from Cambridge, England, who kept a livery stable and required every customer to take either the horse nearest the stable door or none at all. The choice his customers were given was “this or none.” You have no choice in this duality.


There is a choice that you have power to make
when you have seen the real alternatives.
Until that point is reached you have no choice,
and you can but decide how you would choose
the better to deceive yourself again.
(Consonance is deception)
This course attempts to teach no more than that
the power of decision cannot lie
in choosing different forms of what is still
the same illusion and the same mistake.

The temptation to bargain in the face of self-made conflict is great. All that is required in the face of this temptation is to remember that we are as God created us; we are His most holy sons. We are the Self He created, not the small self we made.

The images you make cannot prevail
against what God Himself would have you be.
Be never fearful of temptation, then,
but see it as it is; another chance
to choose again, and let Christ’s strength prevail
in very circumstance and every place
you raised an image of yourself before.
For what appears to hide the face of Christ
is powerless before His majesty,
and disappears before His holy sight.

I am reminded of a friend who was a counselor for many years. When she recognized in a client this pattern of rationalizing opposites, she used the term “ambivalence,” from the German, Ambivalenz, meaning “the presence of two opposing ideas, attitudes, or emotions at the same time.” In the face of this dissonance, this tension she counseled, “Learn to bear the tension.” That is, just stand still for a moment, do not choose, and in that moment of standing still, you are allowing for something else to enter in, inviting Christ’s strength to prevail.

This is the way Jesus expresses it in His Lesson 155, I will step back and let Him lead the way.

The world is an illusion. Those who choose
to come to it are seeking for a place
where they can be illusions, and avoid
their own reality. Yet when they find
their own reality is even here,
then they step back and let it lead the way.
What other choice is really theirs to make?
To let illusions walk ahead of truth
is madness. But to let illusion sink
behind the truth and let the truth stand forth
as what it is, is merely sanity. (2)

This shift from insanity to sanity, from illusions to truth, from dreaming to reality, is the miracle.

God’s miracles are true. They will not fade
when dreaming ends. They end the dream instead;
and last forever, for they come from God
to His dear Son, whose other name is you.

Experiencing the truth of what you are will set you, God’s most holy Son, free from making meaningless choices between illusory opposites.