A recent article in The Guardian caught my eye: “Self-control saps memory resources.” What? There’s a down side to virtue?
Here’s the history. In a 1960s experiment, researchers gave small children a marshmallow and told them that if they could hold off eating the marshmallow for a certain amount of time, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows. The researchers claimed that the children who resisted the temptation—thus demonstrating self-control and delayed gratification–later demonstrated better life skills and were more successful than the children who gobbled the treat. (See, I told you not to eat all that Halloween candy at once!) The more recent incarnation of this research used MRIs to track what goes on in the brain when people put their energy into exercising self-control. It seems that “self-control and memory encoding share common brain structures and mechanisms….” Thus we pay a price for self-control and delayed gratification because our brains can’t do two important things at the same time—regulate certain behaviors and make memories. It’s unsettling at best to think that the character traits that I have always assumed to be good things and that I have worked hard to develop may come at a cost.
The problem is that self-control and delayed gratification are essential to effective ministry, whether it’s fending off the negative (self-control) or putting off the positive (delayed gratification). The self-control of holding one’s anger in check or not making that snarky comment goes hand in hand with the delayed gratification of not taking a sabbatical until the latest project is well launched, postponing an afternoon at the gym to help a family plan a funeral or sitting down to journal only after you’ve made sure you’ve prepared for that next meeting.
One could say “So what?” After all we are about kenosis, self-emptying and self-giving. The loss of a few memories is a small price to pay. And anyway, when we work to build up the church or help a family in need or treat people with respect, we are making memories, not to mention doing the work we are called to do. Perhaps there is irony here. Memory is more than just remembrance of things past but the web of stories of who we are, stories of self and God that hold us together. And the thing about memory is that it first requires us to be in the present. So is being in the present diminished when our brain waves are distracted with the work of being virtuous? This is a dilemma because even though we might tame our inner demons, not attending to our personal lives, our bodies and our souls cheats us, the community and, I would argue, God.
Perhaps this is just the musing of someone who is nearing retirement. As I age, memory seems to be going up in value just as my concern for always being responsible and committed to my work seems to be going down. I now wonder if little holes or missing moments are hiding in the folds of my vocational life, possibilities sacrificed on the altar of necessity and discipline.
What’s your marshmallow?
How are self-control and delayed gratification gifts for your work?
How do they get in the way of being in the present with others, self and God?
Kathleen Russell is the Joe and Jesse Crump Associate Professor of Cultural Research and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology. Prior to joining the seminary’s faculty, Kathleen worked in parish ministry and as a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor in two different locations.