Self-control through greater cause: Martin Luther’s solution for not eating the marshmallow

Posted on February 1 2012 by frank

“Here stand I, I cannot otherwise!” Threatened with excommunication Martin Luther stood in front of the Emperor Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire and was asked to take back his interpretation of scriptures because they defied the power of the pope. Martin requested some time to think, prayed, consulted a few friends and gave his response the next day: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen!”

A four-year old girl is left alone in the room with one marshmallow on the table. The child is told that she can eat the marshmallow whenever she wants. But if she is able to hold off until the experimenter returns, she will get a second marshmallow.

According to Roy Baumeister, one of the most distinguished social psychologist alive, willpower is the “greatest human strength. It is also the one thing that most of us think we have too little of. In fact, when people are asked about their failings, lack of self-control is on the top of the list. Yet its importance is tremendous as the famous marshmallow experience has showed. The children who were able to hold out the entire 15 minutes the researcher was away at the age of four outperformed those who couldn’t in all possible fields of life when they were adults. They scored 210 points higher on SAT, became more educated, earned higher salaries, put on less weight, were more popular among their peers, used less drugs and so forth. Willpower seems to be the single factor that explains future success better than almost any other measure, including IQ.

But where to get willpower?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most influential American thinker of all time, was highly impressed by Martin Luther’s words. In his essay Fate he ponders on the strong hold that fate has in how our lives turn out. “Nature is no sentimentalist, — does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.” Nevertheless, we humans are equipped with something special – thought and will. With them we can carve our own destiny if they are deep and strong enough.

For Emerson, the source of strong will lies in surrendering oneself to a greater cause:
“Alaric and Bonaparte must believe they rest on a truth, or their will can be bought or bent. There is a bribe possible for any finite will. But the pure sympathy with universal ends is an infinite force, and cannot be bribed or bent. Whoever has had experience of the moral sentiment cannot choose but believe in unlimited power.”

In other words, when we have principles and values that we believe in, our will is unbent. When we discover a cause that is greater than ourselves, it becomes a motivational mainstay that sharpens our will: “When a strong will appears, it usually results from a certain unity of organization, as if the whole energy of body and minds flowed in one direction.” We are so empowered by our cause that we are able to stand any pressure.

Here I stand, upon these principles. If they lead me into excommunication, then so be it. For these principles are stronger than me. Failing them would be to fail what is worthwhile in life. Therefore I stand by them, whatever it takes. I have no choice. The fate of these principles is the fate of myself.

Success in life is about willpower. And willpower is ultimately about finding a cause for oneself that is so great and capturing that it molds one’s whole being to flow towards this one, noble goal. The best way for getting things done is to connect one’s things to something that is larger than oneself. When one has found a true mission for one’s life, the necessary self-control emerges from within.

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3 responses to “Self-control through greater cause: Martin Luther’s solution for not eating the marshmallow”

  1. Glad to hear Emerson being used thus positively yet plausibly — & happy to read the text, all in all! Could you tell me where the last italized block quote comes from (it might be useful to add the reference somewhere, since the text is much to the point)? It sounds like it could be from Luther but I’m not assuming this.

  2. frank says:

    Thanks Heikki! Actually the italized text comes from my poetic imagination. It was my attempt to capture into words what one might think in such a situation. Glad that you found it to be accurate!

  3. ha-haa, Frank goes Luther — ! Thanks for unveiling the source, & see you!

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