In the classic psychological experiment by Leon Festinger, participants were asked to perform a variety of dull, meaningless tasks, such as turning a wood peg around on a board. Half were paid twenty dollars for their participation, while the other half were paid one dollar. At the end of the task everyone was instructed to tell the next person in line that they genuinely enjoyed the activity.
Those paid twenty dollars had no problem lying and saying they enjoyed the tasks. The money was enough of an incentive. But those paid a dollar felt they had to justify what they said; the dollar wasn’t enough. So when asked later what they thought, researchers found that these participants had convinced themselves that they enjoyed the tasks.
The conclusion: We want our beliefs and actions to match. When they don’t, we feel uncomfortable. Cognitive Dissonance. We must either change our actions, or change our beliefs.
Now. Imagine my grandfather: clean-shaven, hair still dark despite his age, thick, worn hands that fit perfectly around the books that littered my childhood. Imagine him in a suit and tie, an honorable Elder in his congregation, standing behind a podium in the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, delivering talks on righteous living.
As he gives his talk on the dangers of associating with people outside of The Truth, he tries to forget that two of his three children left this Truth years ago, that his grandchildren are not being raised the way he would like. He has to forget this, because in a matter of hours he is meeting them all for dinner.
Imagine his discomfort.
For years, he tries to ease this discomfort, justifying his actions to himself. He thinks, Maybe they’ll come around. They don’t.
So imagine him and my grandmother, driving up to the house of their only son and his wife. The four of them sit down around the table together, two armies that have been avoiding this battle for years.
While my grandmother watches silently, he delivers his piece in the same methodical way he does most things. He can no longer have a relationship with his children. This has been coming for a long time. This is what he feels is right.
Finally, actions and words are in harmony. No more justifications. He is rid of his one dollar family. Imagine his relief.
I am twelve years old and living in a small town made up of nothing but drugstores and churches. And Target. I think I know everything about everything. When my mom tells me what my grandfather has done, I am filled with the sort of consuming anger I always feel toward people who don’t agree with me. He was an idiot and I had no trouble saying so. I wrote him angry letters. I cried a lot.
Looking back I am unable to remember exactly when I learned to ignore my anger, just that I did.
I am unable to remember the exact day my grandfather changed his mind.
I do remember that I forgave him easily. Maybe too easily. I have held life-long grudges for less. But this time it was enough for me that he couldn’t handle what he had done.
When I was eighteen my dad went into the hospital and it was my grandfather who came to lend his support. Our family reunited in the emergency room. My twelve year old self, the one who knew the answers to everything, wouldn’t have been able to understand how I could welcome him back. How I could sit across from him in the hospital cafeteria, the years of silence and anger folded away. I still don’t understand. Maybe I never will.
Maybe Leon Festinger would understand. After all, what is forgiveness if not the ultimate act of cognitive dissonance? To forgive someone there is always a lot you have to be willing to forget or ignore. To forgive someone, you must find your twenty dollar reason.
Grace Carlson is a writer from Washington. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional poem. She also writes articles on travel, mental health, writing, and books. Sometimes she’s funny, or at least that’s what her mom says. Visit her blog, A Passport And A Pencil.