It’s all in your head: dissonance

Why do we have such trouble coming to grips with climate change? Why do we falter? Originally published in the Swedish web publication Poros, Jonatan Olofsgård explores the subject in his essay Dissonance (or Dissonans in Swedish).

We Don’t Have Time have been granted permission to translate it into English by the author and publisher. Please make sure you have 10 minutes of privacy to read it. It’s that big a deal. It may help save us from ourselves by realising we all experience cognitive dissonance as a result of living in the climate emergency.

Image ‘And the Dead Robed in Red’ by Harry Clarke (1920). Downloaded.

I have become afflicted by a kind of muteness. It reveals itself in the following manner: the more I know, the less I am able to talk about it. It came over me last spring. As the days became longer, I became ever more silent. I know there was a time when I talked, and that some time later I lacked the ability. I know it happened in the spring, because I was in hospital for a while then, and when I came out I could no longer talk.

There’s a parallel between my hospital stay and my muteness.

I came down with a high fever, and a doctor told me I had the flu. But the fever wouldn’t go away, and I was just getting more and more tired. I saw a new doctor. “I’m going to run every test there is until I know what’s wrong”, she said. I got the feeling that my inexplicable fever was an offence to her. When the test results came back, she told me I had glandular fever and explained that it might take some time to clear up. All I had to do was rest and allow my body to recover. And finally, she said that if I felt sudden pain in my stomach, I should seek medical help immediately. “But it’s very uncommon. I’ve never seen that in my entire professional career.” She was in her early 50s and spoke with the complete authority of the expert. I didn’t feel particularly worried.

The next morning I woke up early with dull pains in my stomach. Not in any way intolerable — but quite apparent. And yet I hesitated, despite the instructions I’d been given. I didn’t want to sit in the waiting room of a casualty department, feeling the hours slipping away. I made breakfast for my children and thought that instead I’d just go to the medical centre when it opened. Perhaps the pain increased, or perhaps there was a moment of stillness where I could think more clearly. I no longer remember exactly what it was that made me pick up the phone.

I felt obliged to apologise for disturbing them. The nurse on the phone told me not to be silly. I arrived at casualty in an ambulance. I remember being embarrassed at taking up space in the hospital, as if I’d bluffed my way in. To me it was obvious that after waiting for a few hours I’d be examined and then sent home again. I was in pain, but it wasn’t dominating my experience of the world.

Being the focus of emergency healthcare means seeing an extremely effective machine from the inside. I know there are a lot of people with completely different experiences of Swedish healthcare, and I’ve also previously encountered the slow, long-winded nature of our medical system: the pointless waiting and empty diagnoses. But what happened that morning was completely different.

They didn’t put me in a waiting room, but instead on a stretcher. The nurses rolled me past people who I thought looked like they needed urgent care, people who looked like they were going to die at any moment. They took blood tests, did an ultrasound, and sent me for a CT scan. There was a calm, efficient flow of activity.

Now, afterwards, I reflect on that I should have felt more worried at the time. I should have understood that something was wrong. I should have been impressed by everything going on around me. But how are you supposed to feel when the medical system reacts more strongly than your own experience tells you to? My interpretation of the situation was based on the concrete experience of how it felt to be me. My bodily experience trumped the information being transmitted to me from the surrounding world. I observed what was going on with disbelief, and perhaps a certain amount of curiosity.

A few hours later, a surgeon explained that I didn’t need to worry, there was no danger. But I would have to stay in hospital. How long for? Until I could go home again. And when would that be? When they decided I could go home again.

Receiving two contrary messages at the same time leads to a very particular type of cognitive challenge. There’s no need to worry, everything’s okay — but you can’t leave the hospital.

My experience of doctors is that they love life, love healthy people and are focused on healing. But they talk rather less often about risks and how fragile life is. For the same reason, some doctors are reluctant to reveal why they’re doing particular tests, making certain decisions or prescribing specific medications. Finding out why I couldn’t go home required a fair amount of effort.

There was a shadow and the shadow could be a rupture and the rupture could in turn lead to internal bleeding. And if it started to bleed, it wouldn’t bleed just a bit — quite the opposite. If I went home and started to bleed, it was by no means certain that I’d get back to the hospital in time. The surgeon explained all this with some irritation in her voice, as if informing me of all this was a disruption to the whole medical system. She emphasised her main message once again. There was nothing to worry about. All I needed to do was lie still in a hospital bed and if I felt the slightest change, the slightest increase in discomfort in my stomach, I should press the alarm button.

And what would happen then? The same irritation. They would operate on me. The blood was ordered. The needles and tubes in my arms were there so the healthcare personnel could anaesthetise me quickly if they needed to. Essentially, I was just a piece of meat to be placed on an operating table. And by the way, I couldn’t eat or drink anything from now on, just in case I needed to be operated on immediately. If I got really thirsty I could moisten my lips with a damp cotton bud.

They moved me to a casualty department, put me in a bed and connected me up to a drip. Demonstrated how the alarm button worked. Connected me to a monitor to keep track of my pulse and blood oxygen level. I stared at the curves on the screen. “Rest”, said the nurses. “Don’t worry.”

So I lay still — actually I couldn’t do anything else since i was practically chained to the bed. They X-rayed me again. The battery in my phone ran out and there was no charger in the ward that fitted it. The world shrank. Every morning a surgeon came in and told me I was to stay another day.

Finally I was allowed to sit up and then to move around the room, still connected to my drip. After another couple of days they finally took the drip away and let me eat and drink again, and eventually I was allowed to go home — without anything actually having happened.

And then the muteness arrived. It stemmed from the fact that the medical system had given me the task of dealing with two completely irreconcilable descriptions of reality: You might die if you go home. There’s no reason for you to feel worried.

The scientific term for the condition that arises when somebody is forced to handle two irreconcilable insights is cognitive dissonance. It’s a state of mind characterised by surprise, fear, guilt and sometimes embarrassment. It’s not a nice position to find yourself in. The way out of it often consists of rationalising away one of the insights — the more uncomfortable one — or of suppressing it, or projecting it onto someone else.

In his book “Anthropocene”, environmental historian Sverker Sörlin describes our time in the following way: “It is both a success story and a period of breakdown”. If you could choose to be born at any time, but not choose where in the world or in the social pyramid, 2018 would be a good choice. Today, many people have a better time of it than ever before (in purely material terms). At the same time we are in a global ecological crisis without equivalent; a process that it’s expected will soon make large parts of the planet uninhabitable for humans.

This sounds so vast, so ridiculous, so incredible when you say it straight out. Incredible as in not credible. I instinctively want to soften and nuance what I’ve written. It hurts me to leave it unchanged. When I lay there in my hospital bed listening to the surgeon explaining the situation to me, I felt a sense of recognition. I recognised it from every conversation I’d had about global warming, about biological diversity, about the global nitrogen cycle.

The fact that development is moving forwards, that things are getting better, is a narrative that has its roots in the time of the Enlightenment; the time of the revolutions. Scientific, political and industrial; these three areas reinforce each other. This is where the thought is born that it’s possible to know and act better — that knowledge is cumulative. That there’s a line running from the past into the future, and that it’s possible to extrapolate. That progress gives birth to itself. This is a narrative that corresponds to our experience, which makes history understandable, which provides a framework for how we should act, which makes it possible to relate to the future.

Against this idea of progress there is a newly born insight that we are hollowing out the ground we stand on, that as a species we are destroying the foundation of our own existence. It’s common for anyone pointing this out to talk about progress as a construct; a narrative or a myth. This is very unfortunate. Concepts such as ‘myth’ or ‘narrative’ aren’t merely intellectual tools, they are also rhetoric, and rhetoric says that progress and development are an incorrect description of the world we live in. Progress or catastrophe. We instinctively want to reject one of these descriptions. The complication is exactly as Sörlin describes it: that our time is characterised by both success and breakdown, not that one of the descriptions is true and the other false.

It’s a terrifying balancing act. Anyone who takes the threat seriously is just as sensitive to dissonance as anyone who clings to progress. Neither wants to find themselves in the discomfort that dissonance leads to.

If there is an essentially different narrative, a framework that’s not about progress, it isn’t a doomsday narrative so much as a statement of our almost total dependence on our surroundings. We are part of an incredibly sensitive ecosystem and there’s no way to take ourselves out of this complex relationship of dependency. Since Descartes’ day, the idea of progress has been closely linked with the control of body and nature, of matter and energy. These are two narratives that don’t seem to be compatible. Reason says that one of these narratives must be false, that one of them must be discarded. The challenge lies in the fact that both of them can be true, but that our consciousness is not equipped to handle this. Evolution hasn’t prepared us for it.

So when the medical staff inserted needles into my arms, when they pushed me along on a stretcher to get a CT scan, I didn’t feel worried, despite my reason registering and assessing what was going on around me. Despite the fact that I understood what was going on. The experience of my body, the experience of my world, my experience of being me, came before all reasoned arguments. I didn’t feel I was in danger. I didn’t feel a level of pain that could justify the doctors’ actions. I didn’t experience any threat, despite my reason being able to draw the conclusion that there was a threat — I didn’t feel any worry. This was my internal dissonance, and I recognise it from so many conversations I’ve had about climate change. At lunch, on the commuter train… everywhere. When what I say can’t be reconciled with what the other person experiences.

The people I talk to aren’t idiots. On the contrary, they can keep two thoughts in their heads, they’re able to see that two courses of events can be parallel, that what creates prosperity also erodes what it’s based on. That situations can be ambiguous — alternately symbiotic and parasitic. And yet I can’t talk about this. The discomfort is too great.

There are people who choose the doomsday narrative because they feel it’s a more correct description of reality. The price they pay is to some extent no longer being able to take part in society. It’s impossible to be happy about your colleagues’ foreign holidays or consumption. You can no longer view increased growth as something desirable and natural. The things that form the foundation of your interaction with other people no longer function. For these people, playing along means a betrayal of themselves. But speaking up makes them so difficult that those around them can’t stand to have them near. There are also many people who wholeheartedly live the progress narrative, who reject every threatening signal or feel confident that every threat can be conquered, just like everything else that once stood in the way of progress. But the majority of us live with our heads down, trying to find a way to avoid the discomfort.

I was discharged with a list of instructions. Don’t do anything too strenuous. Avoid activities with a risk of falling or hitting your body. Don’t lift heavy weights. As if I would have tried. I could just about cope with dragging myself up the stairs to my bedroom.

At home I lay on the living room sofa and thought that it should be possible to use this insight, this bodily, contradictory experience. I was already familiar with the term cognitive dissonance, but the term had no concrete anchor for me. At the hospital, I was given exactly that: an anchor point.

I’m writing this a year later. I still have the notes and comments I wrote for this text; fossils from the period immediately after my hospital stay. I work with them. They act as a mirror in which my bodily experience meets my experience of the society I live in. Is it working? I don’t know. When I began to write this essay it was winter. An unusually late, cold and snowy winter, following a period with an unusually high amount of rain. Now, as I finish the text, an extreme heatwave has just finished. Around me people are talking worriedly about the heat, only to go back in the next instant to discussing their holiday plans and renovation projects. We move in and out of these two major narratives, but never stop in the place where they meet. We don’t stop in the dissonance.

Several years ago in his book “Collapse”, David Jonstad wrote that many of the people living through the fall of the Roman Empire never realised that the empire was collapsing. The process was too drawn out, and it consisted of such a vast number of movements forwards and backwards, like waves moving up and down a beach. But on a more basic level the experience of collapse was also in conflict with the foundation of the Roman view of the world — in Rome it simply wasn’t possible to imagine a world that wasn’t dominated by Rome. And that’s not so surprising, really. Rome was a victory machine, a wonder of infrastructure and military domination that lasted more than 700 years. Our cultural framework — our inheritance from the Enlightenment — is only half as old, but still dominates our thinking. Therese Uddenfeldt touches on the same subject in her book “The Free Lunch”, which has the wonderful subtitle “Or why it’s so difficult to understand that everything comes to an end”. Why is it so difficult to even imagine something can be different to what we’re used to?

The fact that we flee from dissonance means our experience of the world is truncated. Something significant is removed — stolen from us. We lose the ability to clearly see how the world is changing around us. Anyone who can’t take in both movements is unable to fully experience the current moment, and is instead relegated to a before and after. Instead of seeing how the perspectives are woven together we are thrown between them, back and forth. And then suddenly one of the perspectives cracks and it feels as if we’ve always lived in a single narrative. I can see that in myself, in what I perceive to be a before and after. I can feel it in my surroundings, how we unconsciously move around such a point; a point that we have perhaps already passed but not yet succeeded in capturing in the spotlight.

I lay in my hospital bed and was monitored by a system that had grown out of the idea of progress. Medical skills that would have once been considered magic were available to me, just ready to spring into action. And yet simultaneously the same system was undermining my living conditions, eroding them like acid rain or like a rising sea wears away the beach.

It’s taken a year to give birth to this text. A year in which I essentially haven’t talked to anyone about the environment, sustainability or ecology. A year in which the discomfort I experienced was so strong that I became paralysed and silent. This is an attempt to break that silence.

The experience of dissonance gives rise to feelings of helplessness and paralysis, but shying away from what we encounter in the dissonance between success and catastrophe also makes us helpless and paralysed. We lose our ability to see and think clearly. As a society, as individuals, in our most private spheres where we are naked and alone. In the moment, the difference is subtle, easy to miss — but in actual fact it’s enormous. It isn’t the news that you have a disease that kills you. It isn’t the news that you’re out of danger that saves you.

Written by: Jonatan Olofsgård

Translated by: Jane Davis

This is a translation of the original article for the web publication ‘Poros’. Poros is a Swedish online essay journal, launched in 2015. 
Web site: #4 2018. Original post here.

Facts about the author

Jonatan Olofsgård (born 1983) lives in Skurup, near Malmö in southern Sweden. His writing is an exploration of the links between culture, nature and technology.

Jonatan Olofsgård. Photography: Matilda Fält Skoglund