Monday, October 18, 2010

Waiting for an Extra Marshmallow

This past Sunday was one of the fortunate times in the Celebration of the Eucharist that all three readings from the Liturgy of the Word followed a similar theme: perseverance (for last weekend's readings go to: God presents us with three wonderful images of perseverance: Moses straining to hold up his arms with Aaron and Hur helping to support his arms as Moses grows weary; an infant listening to the stories and lessons from Sacred Scripture, and a widow persistently asking a judge to side in her favor and eventually receiving a just decision. Our Heavenly Father explicitly tells us that we must persevere in our faith and that if we do, we will, like the widow, receive our just reward.

But, persevering in our faith (or in any aspect of our lives) is difficult. We live in a society and a world that demands speed. Diets should shed double digit pounds in a matter of days; exercise routines should shred fat within a few workouts; food should be received in a hurry, consumed in a hurry, and eaten in huge quantities (unless, of course, we're on a miracle diet promising double digit weight loss in a few days); abridged versions of books should guarantee the same substance of a novel in less words; music should be downloaded instantaneously; and all people should be reachable by cell phone or text at all hours of every day.

Constantly living by this modus operandi, is it any wonder that we expect the same urgency and ease from our spiritual lives? We want many things-- to win in battle, to be equipped for every good work, and for things to go in our favor-- but we do not want to work for them. Likewise, we do not want to wait for them either. Working hard and delaying the gratification of something runs directly against the current of our society-- get anything you want right when you want it.

Working hard was a principle upon which our country was founded. The Puritan work ethic believed that God rewarded those individuals who worked hard enough to deserve it. And whether or not God truly does shower blessings upon those who work hard, it makes sense that working hard toward the attainment of some goal gets us that much closer to achieving it. While we may not become the starting point guard or earn first trombone, working hard for something does pay off.

Similarly, delaying gratification is also healthy. We're taught to eat our food slowly and to wait 10 minutes prior to going back for seconds. If we're still hungry after that time, it's okay to have a second helping. Waiting overnight to press send on a scathingly drafted email response can also have its benefits; looking at our words with a clearer mind can keep us from forwarding an email we would otherwise regret. Holding off on a purchase can also yield dividends: it can allow the price to drop to a more reasonable sale and/or help you to realize if buying the item is really worthwhile. Patience, therefore, is not only a virtue, it can also lead us to success.

If we can just hold on, good things can happen. An experiment conducted in the 1960s at Stanford University revealed that there is a correlation between self-control and future success. The famous "Marshmallow Experiment" offered young children one marshmallow to consume immediately or two if they were willing to wait to eat the first for an undisclosed period of time. In tracking subjects, those who were able to delay gratification at an early age typically scored 200 points higher on their SATs than the impulsive children. Furthermore, the children who waited performed better in school, encountered fewer behavioral problems as adolescents, and led healthier lifestyles later in life. In this case persevering not only resulted in the gratification of another marshmallow, it was a predictor of future success in life. (Click on this link to see a humorous update on the marshmallow test:

Perseverance may also point toward another quality, and one of utmost importance to Catholic educators: holiness. For as St. Paul encourages the Hebrews (12:1), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us." If we can persevere in our faith, and remain true to ourselves and our Heavenly Father in a world that encourages us to sell out and get the quick fix, our just reward will be well worth the wait.

If nothing else, it will be more than an extra marshmallow.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's For Their Own Good

Last Friday, I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee to repair a torn meniscus. While I wish I could say that this injury was a result of some exciting feat of strength or daring act of kindness, I "tore" it by merely standing up from a squatting position. Torn last month over Labor Day weekend, I had adjusted my lifestyle to accommodate my limiting condition. Not being able to run or workout was initially a hard pill to swallow. But, over the course of the month leading up to my surgery I grew accustomed to doing one-legged workouts, going for walks instead of runs, and coping with not being able to squat past 90 degrees. In fact, in this short time, I became so comfortable with this new way of life that I was worried about this surgical procedure.

Thoughts of "What if something were to go wrong? What would the rehab be like? How much longer would it be before I'd be able to workout, or even just walk normally?" raced through my mind. Even though I knew that this surgery would put me on a path back to my pre-September lifestyle, I was reluctant to go through with the procedure.

Similarly, just yesterday I removed the very large post-ob padding and bandage that had covered my knee for five straight days. Even though I knew that this would be yet another step toward my recovery, I felt comforted by its protective covering and hesitated exposing my repaired knee. "Would I be able to sleep? What if a student bumped into the next day? Would I feel wobbly without it?"

These are two examples from the past week that point to a much more important issue than my pending rehabilitation: change, even change that we know is good for us, is often met with resistance.

Think of a new dieter and his/her attempts to steer away from sweets, the smoker doing his/her best to kick the habit, or even a child before taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. All of these changes are good; but all are also hard. They can also be scary. In many cases, the difficulty involved in making a change and the fear associated with the uncharted territory of change can immobilize us. It can keep us from changing. Or, mid-change, it can send us running back to the familiarity of our past selves.

But, as Catholic educators we must embrace change. We must fight the urge to announce "but we've always done it this way" and remain entrenched in our past mediocrities. We must embrace each new school year as another chance to improve on the successes of the past one. Much hype has surrounded the recent documentary, "Waiting for Superman" and our educational system here in the United States. Staggering statistics have surfaced: the United States ranks 10th in Reading Literacy, 12th in College Completion Rates, 17th in Science Literacy, and 24th in Math Literacy of all industrialized nations. 67% of our nation's 4th graders read below their grade level. 25% of America's seniors don't graduate from High School and of those that graduate, only 35% read proficiently.

This is not to say that every school, and more specifically every Catholic School, falls into these same percentages. However, our educational system in general is in dire need of change. Changes in our approaches to instruction, administration, parenting, grading, planning, discipline-- everything are essential if our students are to reverse these horrifying statistics. If we continue to do things the same way we've always done them, we should expect to get the same results we've always gotten.

We must be open to change and open to the fact that change, no matter how good it is for us or our children, will be difficult.

In the final chapter of John's Gospel (21:18), Jesus says to Peter, "Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus concludes this message to Peter by saying, "Follow me."

Luckily for us, Peter and countless other followers of Jesus were willing to change. We, too, must have this same openness of spirit if our children are to succeed.

Changing, in this case, is for their own good.