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.