Cognitive Assonance

(May 9, 2009)

Cognitive assonance: The way your brain finds pleasure in grouping like concepts together. Assonance itself is the repetition of vowel sounds in a sentence; cognitive assonance, then, is the repetition of themes in a mind. We have patterns we prefer, and we slot the actors, props, and plots that appear in our lives into those patterns whenever possible. Sometimes this requires an incredible level of denial, but that is a risk we're willing to take in order to force the rhyme scheme we find most comfortable.

This evening, I saw pictures of Mike that actually made me freeze up in my chair, staring in confusion. He's shaved his head and his beard – creating an effect that's actually quite pleasant; he's clearly lost some weight since 2006, and his face is more angular than it used to be – and the result is unrecognizable to me. Intellectually, I knew that I was looking at the man I'd loved for four years, but the images shattered the assonance I'd been enjoying, allowing harsh outside noise to invade.

When you move far away from your hometown and lose touch with most of the people you'd known there, a strange sense of timelessness settles around the space those friends and relations hold in your imagination. Like the evaporated shadows of businessmen in Hiroshima or the ash-bound bodies in Pompeii, loved ones are sealed in time and tucked carefully into memory; once there, they are honed and perfected by the advancing years, their conflicting traits rounded into simpler caricatures. Each is distinct, unchanging, and revered as part of a personal mythology the author has moved beyond.

But when you encounter these sculptures and realize that the clay is actually still living flesh, it's an uncomfortable experience. Everyone has been growing and changing in your absence – they haven't required your nurturing touch or the warmth of your personality to thrive. It's like returning to Earth as a ghost and seeing, with a confounding mixture of reassurance and regret, that progress has not slowed for want of your ideas. Your old friends haven't forgotten you, but you're no longer a focal point for them, just as they're little more than a series of fond reminiscences for you; your nostalgia is their continuing story.

Mike has seen himself every day since I left, and he probably can't tell how different he is – how clearly time and change show on his face, and how his internal structures have surely shifted just as much. But he's jumped out of the pattern I'd created for him, and that makes me feel both pleased and upset. I'm amazed that he's become a new man torn from the skin of the boy I once held, and I'm distraught that the beloved boy died while I wasn't looking.

But then, it's not as if I didn't have to devour my own childhood in order to become the woman I wanted to be. That's another story for another day, though.