In his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II warned the world against becoming a “civilization of consumerism” and each of us becoming “slaves of possession and of immediate gratification.” With fast food getting faster, with overnight delivery turning into one-hour delivery, with a lot of our material needs instantly available at our fingertips, in our society of instant gratification, there are some basic human skills and attitudes that are getting lost, underused, or underdeveloped—like patience. As Saint Augustine said, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” Yet today patience has become a forgotten virtue.
The Value of Delayed Gratification
I have a deep appreciation for humanity’s ingenuity and technological innovations. It has made many of our daily routines much more convenient and comfortable. However, in the process of making our lives easier and more comfortable, we have removed the part of life that naturally developed our “patience muscles.” Our patience muscles do not get as developed as they used to in the days before these technologies and innovations. The spiritual gymnasium that used to exist for our predecessors is hard to find nowadays.
As a Gen-X’er, growing up in the 80s and 90s, I never had to walk 10 miles to school unlike my grandparents did. I never had to wait 3 hours for dinner to be served. I’m used to the nice comfortable amenities of this millennium. Thus, many of my patience muscles are not getting that same conditioning that our predecessors’ got.
In 1970, Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford University conducted one of the most well-known studies in the social sciences—the Marshmallow Experiment. The experiment was designed to see what strategies preschool-aged children take to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow set right in front of them by researchers who then left the room. The children were instructed not to eat the marshmallows for at least fifteen minutes until the researcher came back in the room. They were told that if they were able to resist the urge, they would get rewarded with a second marshmallow. Some of the children were able to resist and hold out for the second marshmallow; some were not.
Fast forward several years; the same children were studied as a follow-up to this experiment. What the study found was that the children in the Marshmallow Study who were able to hold out longer as young kids showed better life outcomes in their young adult lives, including having higher SAT scores, better educational attainment, and even better BMI (body mass index). Since this groundbreaking study, the ability to delay gratification, not just as children but as adults, has been linked, either scientifically or anecdotally, to marriages and divorces, sexuality, addictive behaviors, spending habits, career choices, the pursuit of higher education, and even sanctity.
To be able to delay immediate gratification for a more positive future consequence is indeed an ability that pays. Patience is indeed a virtue that leads to positive outcomes.
So now in our world with microwaves, fast food, e-mail, texting, and other tools and technologies that have dramatically sped up everything in our lives, one is led to wonder where we stand on our ability to be patient and delay gratification. With our modern advances in society today, particularly in our technologies and our societal values, patience is an ability that is now getting undermined.
Can we still patiently wait three hours for dinner to be ready? Are we still able to wait a couple of days for information to travel via snail mail? A text just came in, but can we still manage to wait a little longer to pick up our smartphone? Do we absolutely have to read that text right now while we are driving? If you get a craving right now, you do not have to wait too long anymore because fast food is everywhere. If we have any material need, it might feel like it is our entitlement that we ought to be able to meet that need immediately.
We have certain expectations to meet our material needs and even wants. Thanks to technological progress of the last century or so, we have set up our environments to allow for our material needs and wants to be met right away. This is not necessarily a negative thing. Progress can be good, and I don’t think a lot of us are inclined to go back in time and live in the days before cell phones or digital technology. I’ve already thrown away my Rolodex and my printed driving maps. I don’t think there is anything wrong with advancing in our progress as a human race, and we can always strive for progress and improving our lives. But as we continue making progress and making our human lives better, we must not lose sight of the things that are important. We must look for ways to practice patience.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, wrote in his book Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude about “Holy Patience,” noting, “The requirements of the moment, no matter how imperious, can never displace or overshadow his attention to higher values.” Patience will always be an important virtue. It allows us to be humble and to submit to God’s perfect will. It is the ultimate act of surrender to God. God has his timing, and we must not be too focused on getting things our way and right away that we forget God’s sovereignty over time. No matter how comfortable, convenient, and fast things get, we must not forget that it is God who “determines the proper day and hour for the fruitful performance of certain actions and even more exclusively, the ripening of our seeds and the harvest of our labors.”