A ghostly figure floats above a middle aged lady who sits in an overstuffed chair. She says, “Well when you haunt do you have to float around? Can’t you sit and have some cookies?” It’s a cartoon by Hilgerdt from the New Yorker magazine. I love the subtlety and intelligence inherent in their artistic and editorial bent. Reading it encourages me to think. In this case, for example, must we always act so impulsively?
I have always been a fan of the New Yorker magazine, for the comics if for nothing else. But there is so much else: commentary, feature writing, poetry; a certain sophistication. In fact as a 16 year old budding poet I sent my first efforts that I wanted to get in print to the New Yorker, hand-written if you can believe that. They actually made the corresponding effort to send me a polite rejection letter, with a hand written signature, and you could not hear their laughter in the background. Even so, it is now obvious to me that I did not carefully assess my aspirations at that time. My aim may have been a bit high.
I hope that my voice and awareness of audience has matured somewhat from that boy in love with words and wanting to share. But I do still enjoy periodical literature. Along with Smithsonian and National Geographic, The New Yorker remains a favorite of mine as a 60 year old budding OpEd writer. The magazine’s articles are timely and can be revelatory in how they relate to people everywhere and life in general. There is a perspicacity that incites imagination and comment; so I will.
In a recent article, called “Don’t”, Jonah Lehrer discusses one of my favorite subjects: self control. 1) He relates the story of an experiment called the ‘Marshmallow test’. A four year old was offered a favorite snack, say a marshmallow, from a plate of them. The four year was told they could have one now or wait until the researcher came back and they could have two. The researcher then left. Of course the key was that they were filming the reactions of the various four year olds left in this situation and later comparing them.
I can tell you that if I was that four year old, I would have eaten the whole damn plate and taken the consequences, that’s the kind of kid I was. It took me much longer to learn the benefits of waiting.
But I know someone who would have sat politely and waited. She would’ve looked around, sang a song, squirmed uncontrollably but when that researcher came back there would be a full plate of marshmallows and a greatly relieved, smiling blond child. When asked why she didn’t eat any of them; didn’t she like marshmallows? She would have answered, “I wike marshmawwows, but you said to wait and I could have two.”
That child is now in her thirties, she can pronounce ‘l’ and every other letter and in fact she is well respected as a speaker, writer and leader among her colleagues and former classmates. The marshmallow she has chosen not to eat is a big one: becoming a doctor.
As a teacher if there is one characteristic I greatly admire it is self-control. My class last year was full of students who were very self-controlled. This year I have some that exhibit skills of self control and others that, well, we will work on it. It’s the luck of the draw. A few years back I had a challenging class of seven year olds. When the school year finally ended I was beaten, bruised and left for dead. You never know.
But our modern world does not facilitate waiting for the marshmallow. There is a ‘get it now’ attitude in our society, our entertainment and our news. Instant reporting of all that is happening in the world makes it seem as if it can happen right here, right now. Sports and entertainment figures become wealthy overnight. Children are exposed to this and it makes waiting to eat the marshmallow just that much harder. It causes a perception of immediacy, anything can happen here and now. We are required to work even harder as parents and teachers to get them to understand that self control will lead to a feeling of accomplishment. Deferred gratification is not a bad concept. Earning something through diligence and hard work can be very satisfying. Some marshmallows are worth waiting for, especially if you get two.