I want to start by expressing my deepest gratitude for everyone who is sacrificing, both small and large, for the greater good of this world. We are living through uncommon circumstances, but this blog is about something that we all struggle with and will continue to wrestle with as long as we live. This blog is about the collective decision that we must make as a society and how that decision is the same as the individual ones that we make on a minute-to-minute basis each day.
I’m talking about delaying gratification.
It’s about wanting to do things right now and choosing to make a sacrifice for a greater reward down the road. It’s about resisting a smaller and more immediate reward for a greater and more enduring reward in the future. It’s about being able to have a vision and demonstrate discipline to bring that vision to fruition at the cost of present desires. It’s about exerting willpower in the present so that you can experience greater dividends at a later date.
The decision to practice social distancing is novel but not unique.
The decision to practice social distancing one that we haven’t faced in our lifetime, however, below the surface, this is the same dilemma and decision that humans face when deciding between exercise and eating, spending and saving, cleaning and Netflix, and so much more. However, this time, the stakes are higher and the scenario is much more complicated.
However, this time, the stakes are higher.
I decided to write this blog because I don’t have much else to do and when I don’t have much else to do, I like to think. Here is what I’m thinking and I hope that this blog can be helpful for at least one of you out there as you sit at home and wonder if this is all worth it.
The Marshmallow Experiment
In order to highlight the similarities between social distancing and the everlasting internal struggle with discipline, let me introduce to you the marshmallow experiment. In 1972, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University conducted an experiment where “a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward (one marshmallow), or two small rewards (two marshmallows) if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards (marshmallows) tended to have better life outcomes” including, but not limited to, educational attainment, health markers and other measures of “success.”
In other words, the children who could wait fifteen minutes without eating the marshmallow obtainer a greater reward (two instead of one) than those who could not wait. I know what you’re thinking, “hold up Joe, this is a stretch.” I know that this isn’t the same thing as social distancing, but the underlying concept is the same and I would love if you took a few minutes to hear me out. This is our marshmallow experiment. It’s the same but also very different and I would be missing the boat if I didn’t acknowledge that in some ways, this isn’t the same.
This (COVID-19) is our marshmallow experiment.
What we’re experiencing right now (COVID-19) and what we’re being asked to practice (social distancing) is not the same as the marshmallow experiment for a few reasons. First, our stakes are much higher. In this scenario, it’s not one marshmallow that hangs in the balance. Instead, it’s countless lives, economic collapse and life as we know it. Second, the rewards and gratifications in this “experiment” are less concrete and much more complex than those in the original marshmallow experiment. In this scenario, we are being asked to stop doing what we have spent our entire lives doing. We are being asked to isolate ourselves and put human contact on hold. That’s hard because it restricts our freedom and it alters our relationships, both to others and to the world around us. Third, the outcomes aren’t visible, the timeline isn’t known and the process is unfamiliar. In this scenario, we can’t see our reward, we are unsure if there is a definite outcome and we don’t have a specific time period when this experiment will end (if at all). Fourth, this act of willpower is a collective one. In this scenario, part of what makes compliance difficult is the knowledge that some people will not be compliant and that undermines (to an extent) our efforts. In other words, you can make the biggest sacrifice in the world, but it might all be for nothing if others don’t sacrifice as well. Together, all of these things make social distancing challenging.
But at its core, this is the same.
The differences are obvious, but the similarities are chilling. Every moment of every day, we face the decision between the easy way and the right way. It is human to choose easy, but it takes a higher consciousness and strong vision to choose what is hard in the pursuit of a greater good. We are living in a time right now, where the human race has a collective decision to make; we can choose to be selfish for our short term gain at the risk of long term suffering, or we can each choose to be selfless in our short term sacrifice for our long term gain. Quite possibly, the most difficult part of social distancing is the fact that if it works, our “reward” is simply life as we knew it. However, the alternative is what should drive us. The alternative to “life as we knew it” is something much more uncertain and unsettling. The alternative is loss of “life as we knew it.”
This is a chance to be selfless.
This is bigger than us, but the process is an gift. This is a chance to build character in the act doing what is hard for the greater good. This is an opportunity to serve others with short lived sacrifice. This is a moment to practice discipline and build willpower. This is the time to love others well.
This is something that will define us down the road, both individually and collectively.
Before I wrap things up, I want to share something that I wrote before this all started in another blog. I hope that this resonates with you and helps you move forward in the decision to build character in this struggle and to put the good of the world before the temptation of self gratification.
The best character is the one that does what is hard in the pursuit of becoming better. The best character is the one that helps other people even when there is nothing to gain and especially when it is inconvenient. The best character is the one that gives their best effort on a consistent basis. The best character is the one that lifts other people up in all that they do. The best character is the one who does the right thing time and time again. The best character is developed through times of trial, struggle and suffering. The best character takes immense effort, incredible attitude and persistent pursuit of what is good.
For social distancing to be effective, we need to be on the same page, but we can’t control what everyone else is doing. The best thing that you can do is control what you can control and do the right thing. Help others in every way possible and be responsible in your decisions. Put off immediate gratification for the greater and more enduring good of the human race.
These are just my thoughts and I would love to hear yours in the comment section of this blog. This is a difficult time, but if there’s one thing that I know to be true, it’s that there is a God who loves us. This might not be our plan, but it’s part of His. Find the good where you can and choose to use this struggle as an avenue for growth. Let these words sink in…
Thank you to everyone who is doing their part. I know that it’s not easy, but it will be worth it. I wish you the best and I’ll be praying for you and for us. If there is any way that I can help and/or encourage you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Hold off on the marshmallow.
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Joe, thank you for this post. You have great thoughts. Stay safe.
Terry K. (we still live at your “old” house on Moss Avenue)
Tha m you so much Terry! That really means so much to me! Stay safe as well.
Quite interesting after over 50 years of marriage I didn’t realize that aunt Ellen and I have been practicing social distancing for at least the last 10 years. We always walk, talk and interact with 12 feet separation; 6 feet would be an improvement. I suggested to her that we increase our distance to 18 feet, after all everyone has to do their part.
Uncle Peter, you never fail to make me smile. Thank you for the laugh and I hope that all is well with you and Aunt Ellen!