There is a basic experiment called “The Marshmallow Test.” It was conducted with 4-year-old kids who were brought into a room, one at a time. The kids were given a plate with a single marshmallow on it. The adult said he needed to leave the room for a bit and that the kid could eat the marshmallow if she wanted. But if the kid could wait until the adult returned and not eat the marshmallow, she would be able to eat two marshmallows.
It was a simple test on self-control. It rewarded the child who can wait for an extra marshmallow.
This test has been repeated many times, and a quick YouTube search will find many hilarious videos of kids and marshmallows. There are several different reactions.
Some kids eat the marshmallow right away. It is simple to them. They must think to themselves, “There is a marshmallow in front of me, and I was told I can eat it. Therefore, I shall eat the marshmallow.” Classic case of instant gratification!
Some kids push the boundaries. They start to smell the marshmallow; they squeeze it and even pet it. Some will even lick the marshmallow or take a tiny bite of it, hoping a little sweetness will hold them over until they can eat both marshmallows.
A third type of response is distraction. These kids try hiding the marshmallow under the table or under the plate so they don’t have to see it. They look away, cover their eyes, pinch themselves, or tap on the table or chair.
Apparently, this went on for 15 minutes, which must seem like an eternity for a 4-year-old staring down a marshmallow.
In the end, two-thirds of the children ate the marshmallow.
To me, this experiment is only funny and not really that interesting. What is interesting is the follow-up.
You see, Walter Mischel conducted these experiments in 1970. As time passed, Mischel was able to check-in with the kids. He found that the kids that were able to wait for two marshmallows had higher test scores, had better reports from teachers, and had better relationships.
Self-control was actually a skill that helped the kids throughout their lifetime. It makes sense.
The experiment had nothing to do with sweets. In fact, he did the experiment with pretzels and shiny poker chips with the same results. The test measured one’s ability to see the benefit of delayed-gratification, and this is a skill that helps all throughout one’s life.
Study now so you do well on your test in the future. Run now so you are faster during your race. Be nice to your friends because it is the right thing to do, but it will also make your relationships stronger. This leads to better marriages, better jobs, and higher pay.
I refer to it as a skill instead of a talent or gift because I believe it can be learned and developed. Is there a genetic predisposition to instant-gratification verses delayed-gratification? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. What I care about is what we can control.
By practicing self-control, we become better at controlling ourselves. This is part of the purpose of Lent. (Read about my best Lent ever.) By practicing virtue, we become more virtuous, just as practicing a video game makes you better at that video game.
Self-control is also a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The more we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, the more we will benefit from the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And the fruit of self-control will help improve our lives, faith, and relationships… and maybe get us an extra marshmallow.
When I was living in Honduras, I was living with three other guys. We were all discerning priesthood or religious life, and we were all striving for holiness.
We would constantly challenge each other to more prayer or more simplicity. More simplicity sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain. Patrick might have had four t-shirts on his shelf and I asked if he really needed all four of them. He thought about it for a little bit and said, “No, three is plenty,” and gave away one of his shirts.
It was an amazing year because we were all trying to be the best we could be and we were able to push each other, challenge each other, inspire each other, and pray together.
As Ash Wednesday got closer, we started to chat about what we might do for Lent. We were already fasting regularly, abstaining from meat on Fridays, spending our days in prayer or service, and living simply. But for Lent, we wanted to push ourselves even further.
I came up with an idea of only eating rice and beans for all of Lent. A few of the guys decided to join me.
Now, at first, this may or may not sound like a big deal to you. For us, we were already eating rice and beans regularly. The fact is, I loved rice and beans, and only eating that wouldn’t be that huge of a sacrifice for me. The Hondurans knew how to make rice and beans and we were learning too. You add some garlic, salt, onions, and it might not win a contest on the Food Channel, but I loved them.
So, to make it difficult, I made a rule that I wasn’t going to add any flavoring. At the beginning of the week, I boiled a big pot of rice and a big pot of beans. I didn’t add anything (no onions, garlic, or salt… nothing but beans and rice). And that was my food for the week. For each meal, I got out a small bowl and ate my rice and beans, and it tasted like dirt. The only exception was if I was at someone’s house and they offered me food (it was rude to say, “no”).
The thought was that the rice and beans would give me the nutrition that I needed, but without any of the pleasure of eating. It was a big sacrifice.
But what was the point? It wasn’t a diet; I didn’t really need to lose weight while I was there. It wasn’t because I was addicted to some food and needed to break a habit. Instead of eating whatever I wanted, I was reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us and made a small sacrifice of my own. It was a prayer. But also I was training myself in self-control.
When I saw a candy bar, bottle of Coke, piece of cheese, or frankly any food, I wanted to eat it. Instead, I told myself, “no.” I was training myself to control my desires when it really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if I put salt on my rice when no one was looking, but by fasting in that way I was telling my body that I had control over my desires.
A basketball player shoots free throws in an empty gym when it doesn’t matter if he makes it or not. He does that so he will be ready during a game when it does matter. A trumpet player practices his solo in an empty house and it doesn’t matter if he messes up, so that when he is in front of an audience, he can play it flawlessly.
I don’t tell you about my rice and beans Lent to brag. I tell you because sacrificing in such a drastic way led to the best Lent and subsequently, the best Easter of my life. And that experience was part of the most life-changing year of my life.
So don’t doubt the power of self-control and the ability we have to practice it, develop it, and grow closer to God in the process. Making sacrifices will not only prepare you for the future, it might just change your life.
When I was in college, another student that volunteered with youth ministry was trying to get a group to go to Mexico over Christmas break. He put together a packet of information that painted a picture of an adventure that would take us to beaches and cities, traveling by bus and by foot.
The trip that I agreed to was definitely very different from the actual trip. For starters, the person who was fluent in Spanish didn’t go, and well, you can already tell where this is going.
So there we were… three college guys determined to go to Mexico. My friends Steve and Parker didn’t seem to be too worried about our bilingual friend backing out. But, I was. I spoke about 10 words of Spanish (note to my younger self: taking German in high school will NEVER come in handy). Parker could fake his way through a Spanish conversation, and Steve was somewhere in between.
The three of us drove my minivan from Indiana to Texas. We almost ditched the van at a truck stop in who-knows-where when it wouldn’t start, but we got it running right before Parker started to hitchhike.
In San Antonio, we hopped on a bus to Mexico and the adventure continued. We really had a great time… other than Steve getting pretty sick for a few days.
We arrived in Mazatlan just in time for New Year’s Eve – we just needed a quick nap after all the bus rides. We woke up at 9 AM the next morning. Yes, we slept through all the festivities. (There are hundreds of these stories.)
But the story I want to tell you is about Jorge and Arturo. They are two young guys from Leon, Mexico that we met at our youth hostel in Mazatlan. They spoke some English, which was cool because I did too.
We were talking about our plans and we said that we were going to go to San Blas to try to surf and then head over to Guadalajara. They talked us out of the latter by insisting that we go to San Blas together and then we visit them in Leon (which they promised was much better than Guadalajara). We could even ride in the back seat of their car!
So, after failing miserably at surfing and getting eaten by a plague status of mosquitoes, we gave up on San Blas and headed to Leon with Arturo and Jorge. When we got there, they made a few phone calls. They both lived with their parents, but they thought we could stay with their friend, Ricardo.
As it turned out, Ricardo was out of town for a wedding, so they grabbed the hidden key and let us stay at his apartment – with his permission.
Now, let me recap what just happened. Three guys from the United States who spoke medium to no Spanish, dressed in dirty clothes, and quite frankly looked homeless were invited to stay at someone else’s house, unattended. Yes. That is the truth. They gave us the key, showed us where everything was, and then said they would be back in the morning to show us around the town!
We had a great time. Three King’s eve in Leon (major festival), a day trip to Guanajuato, dinner with Arturo’s family, and an epic soccer (fútbol) game of Leon vs. Guadalajara. Before we left, I remember our goodbye to our new friends saying, “I am very sad to say that if the situation was reversed, I don’t know a single person that would do what you did for us.”
Seriously, if you met some 20-year-old Mexicans that spoke little to no English, would you invite them to stay at your house without any supervision? Would I be this generous and hospitable to random strangers?
In Luke 10, Jesus gives us His definition of neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is the story of a man who goes out of his way to help a random stranger, and in this case, even an enemy.
I learned a lot about generosity from those two guys. They had nothing to gain by helping us. We were poor college students and they were just being nice. I think of them often and hope that I can be as generous and welcoming to strangers, foreigners, and people that need a little hospitality.
You might not be able to invite random strangers into your home, but here are some practical ways to show hospitality to your friends and peers at school:
Be friendly and greet classmates or co-workers, especially with those you wouldn’t consider friends. Smile and be thankful to the lunch server or janitor — just be intentional about greeting someone you would normally walk by without acknowledging.
The next time you see someone sitting by themselves at lunch, invite them to sit with you. Or if that’s not an option, sit with them!
Stick up for someone being teased.
These may seem like small ways to show hospitality compared to the way that “mis amigos” (that means my friends if you find yourself googling the translation) in Mexico treated us… but they will definitely show someone else that you care.
Sometimes following Christ means taking risks. Sometimes someone might take advantage of us, but regardless we are still called to love everyone.
P.S.: We also got pulled over, bribed police, befriended cliff divers, bought a Che Guevara shirt, danced on tabletops, and much more. But those stories will have to wait.
Most people have heard the story of the “Feeding of the 5000.” Other than the Resurrection, it is the only miracle told in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:5-15). This fact alone should make us suspect that it is an important story.
My favorite version is from the Gospel of John, partially, because John 6 is such an awesome chapter of the Bible.
Basically, after hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus got on a boat to get away. People found out and crowds came to Him. When Jesus landed, He saw the large crowd and began healing their sick.
After awhile, people started getting hungry. Now, I am not sure what happened. Maybe they thought it would only be an hour and they would be home in time for lunch. Maybe they assumed it would be catered. Maybe they figured that since there were a bunch of fishermen, there would certainly be a classic Knights of Columbus fish fry. Whatever happened, they didn’t have enough food with them, and they were hungry.
It was getting late, so the disciples suggested that Jesus send the people home so they could eat. Not satisfied with that option, Jesus suggested that the disciples feed the people. Philip pointed out how much money that would cost so they started to see what they could find from the crowd.
Let me remind you that the crowd is hungry. If they had food, they wouldn’t be hungry – that is just logic.
But in John 6:9, Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Exactly! What good is that?
I love that it is a boy that offers the food. Not a man, but a boy.
Maybe because he was young, he had a child-like faith. Maybe the adults around him were embarrassed that he was offering 5 pieces of bread and two fish to feed 5000 people. That certainly wasn’t even going to put a dent in the situation.
But the boy heard that Jesus was asking for some food and he gave everything he had. Even though it seemed insignificant.
Throughout our lives, we are given challenges and opportunities to do great things. If we focus on our own gifts and abilities, it might seem like we won’t be able to make a difference. You may tell yourself: “I am only one person,” or “I don’t have what it takes.”
With world hunger, war, mass apathy, and a culture of relativity, it can be overwhelming.
The truth is, our gifts and abilities might not be enough, and they might be insignificant in the face of large obstacles. But when thousands of people were hungry, one boy gave everything he had. People might have laughed at the small offering, but Jesus takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it, and it becomes not only enough, but there are baskets and baskets of leftovers (John 6:13)!
The same is true with each of us, regardless of age — young boys and girls, or old men and women. If we give everything to God, regardless of how little that might seem, He will take our offering, bless us, break us of our doubt, and give us to the world. And our gifts and skills will not only be enough, but MORE than enough.
So what is holding you back from doing something great? How can your strengths give life to the people around you? What could you do if you gave everything you had to God and said, “Here I am, use me to do something great”?
This is a story about my first microwave. I remember getting one when I was in college. It was amazing. I could cook food or reheat leftovers so easily. I opened the freezer and grabbed a chicken potpie and put it in the microwave for a couple minutes.
This is also the story about how I ruined my microwave. There was a warning on the package to remove the potpie from the miniature aluminum (or was it tin?) pan. If I had read the directions for the microwave, I would have seen that I couldn’t put metal in the microwave. And if I had listened to the thousands of microwave users that came before me, who understood microwaves better than me and had guidance from the microwave creator, I would have known the dangers of heating metal in the microwave.
But I thought they were all wrong; I thought that they needed to update those instructions to get with the times. They were making up rules simply to inconvenience me. So I said, “I’m not going to let some old guy tell me how to cook my potpie!” And I put the potpie in the microwave, tiny pan and all. I slammed the door shut, denying the authority of a silly manual. I pressed, “2 – 0 – 0 – cook.” And then it began.
It started with sparks and some weird noises. Then a little smoke and more sparks, and eventually the microwave stopped. I could smell the horrible stench of burning microwave. I can’t say that I had ever smelled burnt microwave before, but now I am an expert in identifying the smells of melted plastic and fried electrodes. And if you’ve never smelled it before, I would suggest avoiding it.
There were burn marks on the metal pan and on the walls of the microwave from the bolts of microwave lightning that bounced around in my food-warming box. The microwave was no longer functional, and worst of all, the potpie was still frozen in the middle.
I’ll be honest with you, it was kind of fun. It certainly wasn’t how my microwave was intended to work, but man was it spectacular. In the end, I ruined it and was going to need to get it fixed. The temporary pleasure was disrupted by destruction.
Okay, so this story never actually happened. Even the thought of someone doing something so ridiculous is hard to believe. But this is so common in other areas of our lives.
So often, we look at the Bible, or the Catechism, or other teachings of the Church as dumb rules. As if God and His Church don’t understand what’s best for us, and that the Church needs to change to get with the times. And so we disregard these “instructions” and make our own rules. Whether we realize it or not, doing this is actually destroying a piece of us that will need to be repaired.
You see, the commandments and the “rules” of the Church are not meant to restrict us, but they are actually meant to enable us to be a better version of ourselves. When we choose sin or choose to live our lives without God, we are in essence telling the all-knowing, all-loving Creator that we know better… which, quite frankly, is impossible. (Check out this blog I wrote for Steubenville about trusting God.)
And if you have ever actually burned a microwave on accident, I won’t judge. I’ll just point you to the nearest microwave handyman. And if you have fallen into sin, I won’t judge either because we’re all sinners, but I’ll definitely point you to the one place where you can find healing: Confession.
I remember taking a psychology class and learning about an experiment where George M. Stratton made some glasses that flipped the image going to his eyes; so everything was upside down. When he first put them on, he was disoriented. It was pretty obvious to him and everyone around him that something was wrong.
After four days, everything was still upside down, but on the fifth day, the images appeared upright. This experiment has been repeated many times, and with time, people are able to write their name, grab an object, and even ride a bike while wearing these glasses. When he finally took them off, he was disoriented again for a short time while his eyes adjusted back. This phenomenon is known as “perceptual adaptation.”
Imagine my excitement when I stumbled across a pair of “inversion goggles” for sale online. It sounded like oodles of fun just a click away, so I ordered some.
I opened the package like a kid on Christmas morning, and when I pulled them out, I realized that they were a pair of cheap chemistry goggles that were spray-painted green, and someone had glued on a prism. Well, quality issues aside, I put them on and tried to do normal things, looking like it was my first day on this planet. I was literally better at doing everyday tasks with my eyes closed than through these goggles.
The inversion goggles take what is normal and true and flips it upside down. When you first try it, it is very clear that something is wrong, but the longer you keep on the goggles, the more normal things appear.
Living in the state of sin is similar to wearing inversion goggles. Sin is ultimately just a twisting of what is good. With sin, what was right side up is now upside down. At first it may be obvious that the sin is wrong. But if we were to continue living in it and choosing wrong, we would become numb to it. We may be so used to it, that taking off the goggles, or turning away from sin towards truth, will be difficult.
In some ways, we may be have been raised to view certain areas of life through “inversion goggles.” Maybe our parents raised us believing that it is OK to skip Mass. Maybe a friend wrongly told you there is nothing wrong with premarital sex, or that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are a good person. You may be conditioned to think one way, but that doesn’t mean that way of thinking is the truth.
If someone tries to teach us the truth (and take off our goggles), things feel wrong and discombobulated, and we quickly put them back on our faces.
There are few points to all this:
There is absolute truth. There is right and wrong. What we believe is either the truth or a lie (we either have the goggles on or off).
We need to take time studying the truth and having faith in God in order to overcome the conditioning that has conformed our conscience toward lies.
We have to share the truth with others. If we see someone has things upside down, it is our duty (out of love for our neighbor) to help them to realize the truth and help them turn themselves right side up. Not to condemn them for their actions, but to help them to see the truth.
In reality, it doesn’t matter if our vision is working, if we are physically blind, or if we literally see things upside down (my 7th grade science book tells me our eyes are actually flipping the image anyway – but I’m skeptical). What is important is how we live our lives. We should always be seeking the truth and be humble enough to realize that, in some areas of our lives, we might be believing lies.
This experiment also explains why some habits are so hard to break. Even when we know something is wrong, sometimes adjusting to seeing the truth takes time.
So how do you see the world? Are you seeing truth, or something inverted?