You’ve probably heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the ’60s and ’70s, Walter Mischel — a psychologist at Stanford University — put one preschooler at a time at a desk on which he had placed a bell and a couple marshmallows or other treats equally tough for a kid to resist.
“The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows,” wrote Michael Bourne in a January 2014 New York Times Magazine article. “If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both.”
Once alone, the children stared at the marshmallows, or sniffed them, or buried their faces in their hands while they pined, or ate the marshmallows like all that is good depended on their digestion. The study, which discerned differences between people who delay gratification and people who don’t, points to an important truth: We are not unlike preschoolers who are left alone with marshmallows.
We have urges, desires, interests, instincts. We want stuff, like to flirt with or date somebody. Some of us are inclined to get or do what we want as soon as we want to get or do it. Few of us consider this: like for the preschoolers who agreed to wait 15 minutes because it meant two marshmallows instead of one, there are good reasons to delay action, even if what you want’s within your reach.
But we resist it because moderation is a lost art.
To moderate something is to preside over it. It’s to decide, in the case of desire, to act only when it’s prudent to act — a process that compels us to discern before we do stuff, to accept that delayed reaction to desire doesn’t imply that we’ll never get what we want, and to acknowledge that desire for something doesn’t determine how right for us it is. We ought to bring back the art of moderation for these three reasons:
Moderation keeps us virtuous. Virtue requires us to moderate our urges, desires, interests, instincts — to prepare with prayer and thought before we act on them. Chastity is the virtue with which we moderate our appetites instead of being controlled by them. Modesty is the virtue that “encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships” (CCC 2522) — it compels us to think before we speak or act. Temperance is the virtue that “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC 1809).
Moderation points us in the right direction. To preside over a desire means we wait to act on a desire until prayer, critical thought, and context determine that it’s a good idea to act on it. You can’t predict how long it’ll be before it’s smart to act, or whether it even ever will be. That can make a heart hurt. But those are growing pains, and growth puts us in better positions. It orients us toward what we are actually designed for. Time will tell whether that aligns with what we’ve desired. If it does, we will be better prepared — by moderation — to act on that desire. If it doesn’t, by then, our desires likely will have changed.
Moderation prepares us for what God has prepared for us. Sometimes, like preschoolers who ate the marshmallows without hesitation, we go for what we want as soon as we want it. We think that by not immediately acting on a desire or interest, we risk missing out on something great. But patience, prayer, and thought before we act is what’s going to unveil the things that are truly great — the purposes God wants us to serve, the vocations he wants us to live, and the will with which we must align our lives.