PS 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14
MK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
There is a famous “marshmallow experiment” conducted at Stanford during the early 70s that studied the ability of children to delay or defer gratification. Children were offered a treat like a marshmallow that they could either eat right away or wait 15 minutes for the reward of a second treat. The ability to delay gratification is associated with all sorts of positives like higher SAT scores and GPAs, but what is really interesting to me is that the kids who were able to delay gratification often had to almost physically remove themselves from the treat in question. They would cover or avert their eyes or turn around so they couldn’t see the treat. They seemed to know instinctively that resisting temptation was less a matter of willpower and more a matter of strategy.
I think of this experiment as I reflect on the readings this week, particularly the gospel with its infamous command to “cut off” one’s hand and “pluck out” one’s eye if it causes one to sin. Jesus here may seem extreme but he is actually offering good strategy so long as we don’t read the passage overly literally. We might instead think of Jesus telling us to remove the source of sin from our lives rather than merely trying to resist it.
There is evidence to back up the effectiveness of such a strategy. In my dissertation, for example, I looked at what is called “thin-ideal internalization,” that is, the power that images have to make women feel the desire to be much thinner than they are. There is evidence that shows that even brief exposure to thin-ideal images such as we may find in a fashion magazine or many forms of advertising have an immediate effect on the psyche, causing women to not only overestimate their own body size, but also desire a smaller body size than they did prior to viewing the images. Resisting the effect of such images is not a matter of willpower. Indeed, even self-identified feminists who consciously hate the thin-ideal show the same effect after viewing such images. It is reasonable therefore to conclude that the way to avoid internalizing the thin ideal is to avoid such images. I recommended boycotts of fashion magazines and self-consciously resisting watching TV commercials.
If we put our gospel in dialogue with our reading from James (which is equally harsh), we might think of how we can apply such a strategy to the question of wealth. James has little favorable to say about the rich. We calls on them to “weep and wail” over their “impending miseries” because
you have stored up treasure for the last days
[and] . . .
lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
While it is easy to read this as directed towards the “1%”, we in the developed world and particularly America ought not to so quickly dismiss that we are the object of James’ condemnation. The fact is that on a global level, we live extraordinarily rich lives, lives that are glutted with possessions. One of the more courageous acts of this current pontiff, in my mind, has been to turn our attention to the lives of complete opulence that we live in the developed world, which is so often at the expense of the global poor.
Again, avoiding the misuse of wealth is not really a question of willpower. Rather, and again, this current pontiff has emphasized this, the strategy ought to focus on the avoidance of temptation in the first place. We are encouraged to live lives of simplicity, even asceticism. Jana Bennett did a really excellent post on asceticism after the promulgation of the pope’s encyclical in which she notes that asceticism is really about renunciation. When we renounce something, even something good, we take it out of our sphere of concern and it ceases to be a temptation for us. An “everyday asceticism” that Bennett encourages in her reading of the encyclical pushes us the global rich (all of us) to renounce things as a means to a new kind of life.
The possibilities are endless: meals out, daily coffee shop pit stops, heavy reliance on air conditioning, opulent meals, technology and social media, and the list goes on. But as we grudgingly contemplate what we might give up, we need to recognize the strategic importance of such a life. By self-consciously renouncing many of the things that we enjoy, we are doing something akin to the little girl who contorts her body away from the sight of the marshmallow she is desperate not to eat. We are not allowing our wills to get the best of our intentions and to lose sight of the ways in which our riches may be leading us to stray from the authentic good life we are pursuing. Because ultimately, and this is the other side of these two readings, we will have to make an account for how we used our wealth and be judged accordingly. And like the little girl with the marshmallow, we too are waiting for a much larger reward.
Beth, you write that “the possibilities are endless” in regards to “everyday asceticism”. While this is surely true, we can wonder if it should be.
It seems the Church exists out of recognition of the value of community in the spiritual life. Perhaps the power of community could also be leveraged in helping us learn the everyday asceticism you and the Pope so eloquently speak of.
As example, Catholics have renounced the eating of meat on Fridays for centuries. That’s a specific renunciation that Catholics do together, as a group. That specific renunciation becomes a shared experience which binds the group together and gives an extra nudge of assistance to everyone involved.
A renunciation may not seem that important to us if we do it on our own because we are just one person, and this so often and so easily becomes the rationalization for renouncing nothing at all.
But, if we share even a modest but specific renunciation with a billion other people, suddenly a small simple act that once seemed insignificant to us now can now be experienced as something huge, and we become part of that Hugeness.
When those of other communities see a real change happening, they may be inspired to join, because everyone likes to feel they are part of something huge, something powerful.
But all of us will have to be able to see the change to join it, and thus the change can’t be theoretical, vague, diffuse and private. For renunciation to lead, to multiply, to deliver the experience of power which will fuel further action, it has to be something specific, something shared, something public.
How do we translate noble theory which a billion Catholics already understand in to some specific action which they can take together?