The Value of Self Control and Setting a Goal
“Learning How to Exert Self-Control.” This was the title of an interesting article by Pamela Druckerman in the NY Times last week. In it, she talks about Dr. Walter Mischel, a professor at Columbia, who is known as the “Marshmallow Man” for a test he did 50 years ago with pre-school kids. He tested how long 5 year old kids could sit at a table with cookies on it. If these children could resist eating the sweets for 15 minutes, they would get double the sweets; otherwise they would just get one. Future studies followed these children and showed that those who waited longest for the sweets went on to have higher SAT scores, and later in life were healthier, earned more advanced degrees, and coped better with stress. In some ways, one could say they ended up more successful.
An important finding which Dr. Mischel summarizes in his most recent book is that self-control is not simply about a natural willpower, but is something that can be taught and learned. He goes on to show that there are two parts of our brain: one which demands immediate self-gratification and another which is goal-oriented. The secret of developing self control is to train this second part of our brain. We must learn not to become victims of our emotions, doing whatever they tell us whenever we feel like it. Instead, we can learn to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running within us at a particular time, and then choose how to act.
One other essential finding from this research was that self control alone doesn’t guarantee success, because people also need a “burning goal” that gives them reason to activate these skills. Learning self-control combined with an overarching goal will lead to success!
Well, these findings of scientific research simply affirm a central teaching of our Faith. Our Lord talked about supreme goals and self-control in today’s Gospel reading, but he used different words. “If you want to follow me,” he said, “i.e. if you will set as the greatest goal in your life a living and vibrant relationship with me, then learn to deny yourself, to deny your immediate desires and passions, and deny anything that comes between you and Me in this relationship, and place them under the reign of the kingdom of God.”
Jesus talks about the greatest goal in life, and the path of self-denial that leads to it. So let’s begin with the goal – a living and vibrant relationship with God. Jesus says, “Come to me and begin a journey into the Kingdom of God. Here you will discover a peace that passes all understanding, and a joy that nothing can take away. I will be with you and will never abandon you throughout this life and the next. I will help you carry whatever burden that presently weighs you down and will give you reprieve and rest. I will reveal to you the secrets of paradise and fill your life with the deepest meaning and purpose. I will adopt you as my precious and beloved child and will help you discover your eternal heritage as my dearly loved and cherished son and daughter. I will help you live life as it was originally meant to be – to live a life of divine love, knowing that you are loved by your Creator with an unconditional love, and then sharing this agape love with the world around you!”
“If you make this goal of following me your burning goal in life, all of these precious promises await you,” the Lord says. “HOWEVER you must understand that to open up your life to experience these blessings, the path that you must walk implies a denial of self; it involves crucifying our egocentric tendencies and keeping them focused on ME.”
Following Christ won’t be walking the wide and easy path that most people walk in life, doing whatever you want to do. Following Christ most likely won’t include the comfortable and prosperous path that many of us desire. Following Christ typically won’t follow the rich and powerful and famous path that society idolizes. Following Christ won’t include the superficial and meaningless pursuits that too many follow.
No! To reach the goal of walking intimately with Jesus means to walk an “other-centered life,” not a self-centered one. It means to walk a life seeking out the kingdom of God before all else, not seeking out the kingdom of this world. It means choosing to deny certain pleasures and passions and desires in order to place something more eternal and meaningful at the center of our lives. It means to accept whatever cross that God may allow to enter into our lives, and bear that cross with faith, with fortitude, with hope and with love, always remembering that through this particular cross we may discover God’s power in a new way, and may offer a unique witness of His love to the world around us.
Following Jesus is the most noble goal in life, yet it requires us to make certain decisions and consciously choose a certain path! Christ shatters our egocentric world and leads us to a new discovery of being. The Apostle Paul understood this way of self-denial well when he stated in his letter to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
That is the most important discovery we realize in our pursuit of the ultimate goal in life – that our life is not our own, but is Christ’s! This concept is hard for many of us Americans to accept, because we live such independent and so-called “free” lives. Too many of us misunderstand freedom and think that it implies that we can do whatever we want, and no one can tell us otherwise. As Orthodox Christians, though, our Lord reveals a completely new understanding of freedom. Yes, we are free, but Christ-centered freedom leads us not to use our freedom to do whatever we want for ourselves, but to choose to place others ahead of ourselves. We are free to love others, even when they don’t love us. We are free to forgive others, even if they choose to hold a grudge against us. We are free to be kind to others and to treat others as we want them to treat us, even if they don’t reciprocate in like manner. In other words, we are free to live under the reign of God’s kingdom here and now, while we deny following the temptations of the world.
Dr. Mischel’s scientific work discovered that learning self-control combined with an overarching goal will lead to success! May we choose to live a life of self-denial with the purpose of developing a more intimate, life-changing and life-giving relationship with God. This is what our Lord Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
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