You think you know someone, but you don’t. After seeing Matt Lauer deliver the news for over 20 years, perhaps you felt a kinship to him (and perhaps not). Perhaps he was a comforting voice in hard times, someone you looked to in order to make sense of something like 9/11. His was a squeaky clean dad persona you could trust. Perhaps you grew up with him in your life. Maybe you even stood outside the Today Show studio hoping to shake his hand.
And now, this. Fired from his job, lurid accounts of sexual assault in his office with a secret button under his desk to lock the door. Sex toys given to subordinates with notes about how he wanted to use the toys on them. Allegations of sexual assault in his office starting in 2001. All this time, he was your comforting voice on the news, and he was this other person as well, but you didn’t know.
You didn’t know. And so the startling revelations are disorienting. He is not who he portrayed himself to be. These moments of knowing what you could not know before are hard to reconcile, I know. They are moments of cognitive dissonance, that mental discomfort experienced when you simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values ― Matt Lauer is a smart journalist we have come to trust and Matt Lauer is also a sexual predator. Charlie Rose is the voice of intellectual reason and Charlie Rose is also a sexual predator. Kevin Spacey is a brilliant actor and Kevin Spacey is also a sexual predator. This is psychologically stressful.
I’ve lived through this in my own life, so I know the damage this can do, this kind of revelatory understanding that the person in front of you, whom you trust so much, is not who they say they are, that they are capable of great cruelty or depravity. That this charming person in front of you is also a monster. It messes with you. It makes you doubt everything they have ever said to you or done with you. It makes you feel a fool ― “how could I not have known this?” you think to yourself in an endless loop in which somehow you feel the fool, rather than the liar or sociopath in front of you. You feel gaslighted and there is deep psychological trauma in this. And the truth is, you couldn’t have known. You are not to blame.
We all have many faces. We all have secrets. We all put on our public “mask” and there is always some disconnect between our public mask and our private one. Always. But what I know is this: The shorter the distance between who we purport to be ― our outward-facing self ― and who we deeply know ourselves to be when we are at our most honest with ourselves ― our inward-facing self ― the healthier we are. The larger that distance, as in the case of the men noted above, the unhealthier we are, the more pathological we are, the more dangerous and cruel we are.
Our job is to shorten that distance. Not only for our own sake, but for the sake of those around us. Imagine the fallout of this week’s revelations about Matt Lauer on his family, and particularly on his children. Their loving father is revealed to be a sexual predator. No matter our age, that is so difficult to reconcile ― now imagine you are 16 or 10 or 8 trying to make some sense of it, and failing. We all feel the fallout, whether it is his story or Charlie Rose’s story or the story of a business partner, or a beloved friend. It shows up in our lives for years. We question ourselves: “Can I trust anyone? If this person could be so different from the person I know them to be, can I really trust that anyone is telling me the truth and not living a lie?” As you can imagine, this line of questioning has far-reaching consequences.
I used to think it was impossible when I heard stories of wives whose husbands turned out to be serial killers, and the wife had no idea. “How is that even possible?” I would say to myself. “You live under the same roof ― you had to know, or at least suspect.” But no. Now I know it is entirely possible.
But what can we do with this cognitive dissonance? To some degree, we can be thankful for it. As novelist Richard Powers wrote in Orfeo, “Be grateful for anything that still cuts. Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t destroyed yet.” Being thrown off balance like this means that we still expect more from ourselves and others. The danger comes when this doesn’t throw us off balance, when we expect this to be the norm.
Here’s what we can do: We can look at our own lives and shorten that distance between who we really are and who we portray ourselves to be to others. What is that distance in your life? Is it the Grand Canyon, or a small mountain stream? What kind of a leap would it take to go from one side to the other? Mind the gap, and narrow it.
As John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “This is the greatest mystery of the human mind ― the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.” We must make that painful, clarifying leap.