It’s OK to experience cognitive dissonance

Kevin Joyce writes about an unusual experience at the supermarket.

  • Wednesday, January 15, 2020 7:35pm
  • Opinion
Kevin Joyce

Kevin Joyce

Hey, look! There’s a bike, and yet it is in a tree. Wow! a four-way stop where nobody goes first. This is interesting: lamb served at a holiday dinner attended mostly by vegans.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “cognitive dissonance,” or “when things don’t make sense in your head.” For example, you go to the grocery store in the small town where you’ve lived for 30 years and don’t recognize anyone.

Granted, it was pre-holiday grocery pandemonium, and maybe the store was filled with people who simply don’t normally shop? Perhaps they were subsistence farming hermits from remote North Spring Beach, making their one annual outing for condensed milk?

The further I ventured into the aisles, the weirder it got. Not a single soul looked familiar. Who were these people, and what had they done with my ex-hippies and gentlelady farmers?

Heart pounding, I was beginning to suspect I’d landed in some parallel universe, an idea made conceivable only because of the Netflix shows I’ve been watching, nightly, in a state of psychological exhaustion from yet another day of our world falling apart. I depressingly digress, but … right?

In a way, I was happy to feel anonymous. It was one of those days when I dreaded running into somebody that I didn’t have the energy to talk to. Please tell me you can relate.

But then I actually didn’t, and it freaked me out. Maybe I’d been mysteriously transported to Bainbridge, and was under observation — or worse, Mercer! And it’s not even an island!

But these people didn’t look like they were from those places; they looked like us – crusty, somehow, but in a nice way. In the cookie and chips aisle, someone was complaining, out loud, as if needing to be heard, that they were out of gluten-free graham crackers. OK, I was definitely on Vashon.

I headed to fresh vegetables, thinking surely, I would recognize someone squeeze-testing the organic avocados. But no, I only found vaguely unfamiliar shoppers, smiling at me in some cruel episode of Candid Camera.

Then I thought: maybe it was me! Was it I who hadn’t been shopping in months, living only on coffee and electromagnetic radiation from my screens? This also seemed possible, given the aforementioned watching of Netflix.

The kind person at the register didn’t seem familiar either, nor did the grocery-bagging high-schooler. So yes, it was me, I was losing my mind. Or else this is just what aging looked like on Vashon: we know each other so well we don’t have to bother remembering anyone — just smile and nod.

As I left the store, to my massive relief I encountered a friend. She introduced me to what she referred to as her new job: a puppy in training. Oh, thank heavens, a recognizable Vashon-ism (irrational pet devotion). This calmed and “grounded” me (a term coined by witches on Vashon). I was home again.

The problem was, once I was actually home again, I was reminded of the four things I’d forgotten. So, 15 minutes after leaving the Twilight Zone, I had to go back. Please tell me this happens to you.

On my second visit, however, the world was right again. I recognized everybody! Exuberant, I rushed up and kissed a good friend on the cheek.

With renewed faith in my social sanity, I brought my four items to the previously unrecognized teller, looked both her and the bagger-at-the-ready straight in the eyes and said, “How wonderful to see a familiar face.” “You too,” they said together, eyes twinkling.

I immediately thought of Heron, one of the world’s great eye-twinklers, whom the island lost a few months back. An adage of hers came to mind, which would have served me well: “You’ll never be a stranger if you take the time to see people…and be seen”.

Next time, Heron, I promise to do just that.


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