Tagged: fate

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

”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.

”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. They 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 willpower emerges from within.

Why fearless living is an attitude and what does it have to do with taxis that lack safety belts?

The American couple Eve and John had just settled into the unstable northern Uganda and were invited to a dinner in their friends house. Suddenly, a huge blast penetrated the night and made everybody jump up and drop their forks. Eve got scared but everyone else seemed to be very nonchalant about the event. Their local friend Adam smiled as he always did and said that it was ”probably just a small bomb” and that ”these things happen all the time where I am from.” When Eve didn’t calm down he hurried to add that it probably was not a bomb at all but maybe just a hand grenade. He told that ”there is no point in worrying. Things happen here. That is what? That is life here. Just get on with it.”

Sense of security is a funny notion. It is one of our most basic needs; we need to feel secure in order to feel good. But often it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual risks present in one’s life. What we humans are after is a sense of security, not security itself. And this can be found in many different ways. Some use seat belts when driving a car. That’s common back home. Some have a few huge stickers in the car stating that Jesus is the savior and that their fate (and concurrently their driving) is in his hands. This is common here in Central America. In this context using the seat belt would be as if one stated that one doesn’t have faith in God. Both strategies seem to lead to relative comfort for the driver and passengers alike.

It actually seems that the human afraidness is quite constant. Often persons seem to have a certain amount of fear inside of them. The circumstances then dictate where this fear is directed. If there are serious risks in one’s life one worries about them. If there are only minor risks in one’s life one puts the same amount of worry into them. Thus we find absurd examples of protected people loosing their sleep because of some minor spot on their skin while some remote friend of them keeps calm in the middle of a life-threatening civil war. As Proust – perhaps reflecting his own experiences – has said: ”One may be afraid of not sleeping and not in the least afraid of a serious duel.”

This explains why it seems that in two different countries where the risks – as measured for example by life-expectancy – are radically different one nevertheless finds people that seem to have equal comfort in living. It is said that in countries with high volcanic activity people are unusually calm. They have accepted that everything they have – their houses, their family, their lives – could be taken away by a random twist of earth. With so many actual risks around them the usage of car safety belt feels like a minor matter and accordingly most car backseats in Central America seem to simply lack even the option of putting the belt on. And you might have guessed that the local driving style would in most cases be classified as high risk or very high risk by any western standards and the statistics show that this actually is the case.

On the other hand, in the protected lifestyle of Western middle class one views car seat belts as a matter of life and death; people condemn deeply and morally those who drive without a seatbelt. Because of the technical development we wealthy westerners have an increasingly strong feeling that life is in our hands. The natural catastrophes, wars, illnesses, infant mortality and so forth that made the life of our ancestors very unpredictable are now tamed to such extent by modern technology and health care that we can on average expect somewhere around 80 years of living.

The problem is that instead of making people worry less this decrease in actual risks makes people worry more about the remaining risks. The most complaining about the dangers and risks of living I have heard from persons that objectively shouldn’t have any worries as compared to the majority of the human population.

Instead of celebrating the freedom that this lack of risks has created we seem to curl up inwards, becoming more and more afraid of ever more minor risks. Nowhere is this more clear than in modern parenting. The psychologist William Damon has noticed how more and more of the playground equipment he played around when he was kid have been forbidden as too risky during the last decades. Dodgeball is banned and monkey bars have been stripped off. He is afraid that the attempt to generate a totally secure environment for our kids might not be good in the end because children need to explore the world and their abilities.

The point to take home is this: A life without fear is not a matter of the external conditions but a matter of attitude. Life is never risk-free. We are all going to die some day. To make the most out of the days before that we should not let fear control our lives. Increased security should lead to increased playfulness – not increased fearfulness. Life is about quality, not quantity. Increased life expectancy is of no use if it doesn’t lead to increased life celebration – even with few risks.

The American couple Eve and John had just settled into the unstable northern Uganda and were invited to a dinner in their friends house. Suddenly, a huge blast penetrated the night and made everybody jump up and drop their forks. Eve got scared but everyone else seemed to be very nonchalant about the event. Their local friend Adam smiled as he always did and said that it was ”probably just a small bomb” and that ”these things happen all the time where I am from.” When Eve didn’t calm down he hurried to add that it probably was not a bomb at all but maybe just a hand grenade. He told that ”there is no point in worrying. Things happen here. That is what? That is life here. Just get on with it.”

Sense of security is a funny notion. It is one of our most basic needs; we need to feel secure in order to feel good. But often it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual risks present in one’s life. What we humans are after is a sense of security, not security itself. And this can be found in many different ways. Some use seat belts when driving a car. That’s common back home. Some have a few huge stickers in the car stating that Jesus is the savior and that their fate (and concurrently their driving) is in his hands. This is common here in Central America. In this context using the seat belt would be as if one stated that one doesn’t have faith in God. Both strategies seem to lead to relative comfort for the driver and passengers alike.

It actually seems that the human afraidness is quite constant. Often persons seem to have a certain amount of fear inside of them. The circumstances then dictate where this fear is directed. If there are serious risks in one’s life one worries about them. If there are only minor risks in one’s life one puts the same amount of worry into them. Thus we find absurd examples of protected people loosing their sleep because of some minor spot on their skin while some remote friend of them keeps calm in the middle of a life-threatening civil war. As Proust – perhaps reflecting his own experiences – has said: ”One may be afraid of not sleeping and not in the least afraid of a serious duel.”

This explains why it seems that in two different countries where the risks – as measured for example by life-expectancy – are radically different one nevertheless finds people that seem to have equal comfort in living. It is said that in countries with high volcanic activity people are unusually calm. They have accepted that everything they have – their houses, their family, their lives – could be taken away by a random twist of earth. With so many actual risks around them the usage of car safety belt feels like a minor matter and accordingly most car backseats in Central America seem to simply lack even the option of putting the belt on. And you might have guessed that the local driving style would in most cases be classified as high risk or very high risk by any western standards and the statistics show that this actually is the case.

On the other hand, in the protected lifestyle of Western middle class one views car seat belts as a matter of life and death; people condemn deeply and morally those who drive without a seatbelt. Because of the technical development we wealthy westerners have an increasingly strong feeling that life is in our hands. The natural catastrophes, wars, illnesses, infant mortality and so forth that made the life of our ancestors very unpredictable are now tamed to such extent by modern technology and health care that we can on average expect somewhere around 80 years of living.

The problem is that instead of making people worry less this decrease in actual risks makes people worry more about the remaining risks. The most complaining about the dangers and risks of living I have heard from persons that objectively shouldn’t have any worries as compared to the majority of the human population.

Instead of celebrating the freedom that this lack of risks has created we seem to curl up inwards, becoming more and more afraid of ever more minor risks. Nowhere is this more clear than in modern parenting. The psychologist William Damon has noticed how more and more of the playground equipment he played around when he was kid have been forbidden as too risky during the last decades. Dodgeball is banned and monkey bars have been stripped off. He is afraid that the attempt to generate a totally secure environment for our kids might not be good in the end because children need to explore the world and their abilities.

The point to take home is this: A life without fear is not a matter of the external conditions but a matter of attitude. Life is never risk-free. We are all going to die some day. To make the most out of the days before that we should not let fear control our lives. Increased security should lead to increased playfulness – not increased fearfulness. Life is about quality, not quantity. Increased life expectancy is of no use if it doesn’t lead to increased life celebration – even with few risks.