Dissonância Cognitiva

Como você lida com o fato que o mundo é tão grande and we are so small e não tem nada that we can do to really change o mundo – 12:08 DA MANHÃ

Having a crise existencial – 12:09 DA MANHÃ

Essa é a sensação do absurdo

Uma certa angústia

Algo que não se encaixa

Você não se sente pertencente ao mundo – 12:12 DA MANHÃ

The universe seems to be indifferent – 12:13 DA MANHÃ

It really does and eu me sinto louco

Louca – 12:15 DA MANHÃ

É um conflito constante

Isso cria uma dissonância cognitiva – 12:16 DA MANHÃ

Dissonância Cognitiva – Cognitive Dissonance

2018 hit me in the face with a little “So you wanna save the world, huh? Well, news flash, you can’t”, a stark contrast to how I ended 2017 with my speak up about impacting our own worlds.

It doesn’t surprise me though, I have always been an existential person. I love discussing different theories of the meaning of life and our purpose in the world. But none of my fantastical musings could prepare me for the incredible cognitive dissonance my bridge year in Brazil would bring.

I’ve always grappled with the concept of the size of the world. Most of the Brazil Fellows know my saying, “Nothing exists until you create it.” I can hear them all groaning in my head as I type it out— none of them agree with it. To me it’s less about physically creating the world that you see, and more about having the ability to choose what impacts your world.

The saying works best with emotional responses to different situations: sadness/happiness/anger does not exist unless you decide that it should as a reaction to your surroundings. However, more people are influenced by their immediate emotions than allow themselves to manipulate their own emotions in their favor.

Credit: Trevor Hall

It also works as a motivator. If I am trying to find a picture to accompany this blog, I won’t be able to find exactly what I’m looking for on the internet. Instead, I have to go out and take a picture to fit my vision. If I want to be good friends with someone, that relationship will only come about if I put in the effort to make it happen.

“Things” don’t appear in the world spontaneously, they are created when you actively interact with stimuli. This is where the Fellows stop me. “But with your saying, that means you created that tree over there, you created gravity and the laws of the universe, and you created me, telling you that your saying is flawed. That’s not possible. Things already exist.”

Except yes, I created all of that stimuli, from the tree giving me shade from the intense Brazilian summer sun, to the gravity that pulls my phone to the ground as it slips from my back pocket, to the people that argue with me and test my beliefs. A better way to say it would be that I allowed all of that stimuli to enter my world. I could easily be sitting in a college dorm in the US, typing up term paper instead, but I chose to be 5000 miles away from that situation. I could have decided that gravity is not the culprit of stealing my phone, but some other fantastical magical force or being. And I also could have decided to not listen to you, to not mentally process your argument, and to not let it exist in my perception of the universe. But I do because I want it to.

Basically, I took a roundabout way to say that I have control on how I perceive the size of the world, and also that cognitive dissonance doesn’t exist unless you create it. And I created a whole lot of it.

The world is big. There are lots of things. Countless. Innumerable. But we number them. 7.6 billion people and approximately 8.7 million species on Earth. It’s too much for me to comprehend. How do we even get a number that high? How can I even imagine I can save a world that big?

I don’t. What I really imagine is that I can save the world that exists in my experience. My hometown of Rockville, Maryland, the D.C area I have explored, the strips of New England I see out of my car window on road trips, and now the Island of Magic and Florianópolis, Brazil. My old friends, family, and coworkers back home and my new ones here. The animals at R3 and the ones in my favorite environmental documentaries. I imagined that expanding my world to include Brazil would be enough for me to comprehend it.

But for a horrible moment around midnight, I convinced myself that the world actually was bigger than what I had created around me. Along with uncontrollable sobs, trembling, depersonalization-derealization, and an impending sense of doom, I let my cognitive dissonance exist. I fought with the idea that things really did exist without my perception— while I always believed they do, I rarely dwell on it, and do so with fascination rather than apprehension. Perhaps selfish, but ignorance is bliss. I love to imagine the lives that everyone else leads, but only what I imagine is what becomes part of my reality. I only get to live my own life.

So as I panicked with the realization of how small I am, how big the world is, and how nothing I do will ever really change the world (as everyone else knows it), I texted my incredibly intelligent and philosophical Brazilian friend in search of answers. It doesn’t exactly help that along with my psychological distress over contradictory beliefs and ideas that I hold to make sense of the world, my brain also thinks in a mix of two very different languages. At least he speaks both English and Portuguese and was able to understand.

The WhatsApp texts above translate to the following: how do you deal with the fact that the world is so big and we are so small and there is nothing we can do to really change the world? – having an existential crisis – this is the sensation of the absurd – a certain anguish – something that doesn’t fit – you don’t feel you belong to the world – the universe seems to be indifferent – it really does and I feel crazy – crazy – it’s a constant conflict – this creates a cognitive dissonance.

After a much needed conversation that calmed me down, I got a list of books to read (1984, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus) and a new philosophy to deepen my cognitive dissonance in a way that inspires me: absurdism.

In regards to “inherent meaning or value” as concepts, in the universe, and in the pursuit of meaning itself, I am satisfied with the absurdist’s “maybe”. It digs a little deeper into “nothing exists until you create it”. Because there is no humanly comprehensible meaning to the big and vast world, I have to create my own meaning in spite of the Absurd.

My gap year is absurd. I shouldn’t have expected to be able to find my purpose in life and figure out how to save the world. I shouldn’t expect to be able to find it at all.

My being in Brazil is absurd. But that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy creating my own meaning here any less.

Love and Peace,


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