Delayed Gratification

Last night I began reading a remarkable book entitled Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.  Written by sociologist Michael Kimmel, the book attempts to offer a map of the terrain young men face today in order to help them "steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves."

Kimmel quotes a young graduate student in psychology:
I feel like my whole life has been one long exercise in delayed gratification...I mean, in high school, I had to get good grades, study hard, and do a bunch of extracurricular things so I could get into a good college. Okay, I did that. Went to Brown. Then, in college, I had to work really hard and get good grades so I could get into a good graduate school. Okay, I did that. I'm here at Wisconsin. Now, though, I have to work really hard, publish my research, so I can get a good tenure track job somewhere. And then I'lll have to work really hard for six years just to get tenure. I mean, by the time I can exhale and have a little fun, I'll be in my mid-30s -- and that's to old to have fun anymore!
As a graduate student, I can commiserate with this young man's sentiment. It is so easy to live our life according to future benchmarks. We find our goal, work really hard to achieve it, only to find another goal on our horizon. Our rush toward future goals keeps us on a treadmill we dare not jump off.

The same is true, I reckon, for any goal in our lives. "If I just lost ten pounds" or "If I could just be a size-X" or "If I just got that promotion." We want to assure ourselves that if we go just a bit further, we will find happiness. And so we either put off enjoying ourselves until we reach that goal - if we can ever reach it - or we become so intimidated by the journey that we don't even begin.

Lent, I suspect, is quite a bit like this. We set our gaze toward Easter and make tons of promises to ourselves about how, by the end of Lent, we will have become better at prayer or more spiritually deep. Yet we become so fixated on the end, the goal, that we lose sight of the daily joys we can discover as we try to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Growth in holiness, like growth in fitness, is not an all-or-nothing affair. It's a slow process, moving us incrementally from one point toward another. That is to say, it's not like one morning a person wakes up and says, "Oh! I'm holy!!" Quite to the contrary: holiness is not a destination but a process in time, the ongoing growth in openness toward friendship with the Lord. Because it is a process, because it is a commitment of ourselves over time, there both is and is not a sense of delayed gratification.

It is true that, at times, we have to put off small pleasures in order to attain a larger or more valuable one. If I want to grow in my spiritual life, I know that I might need to get up five minutes earlier to have a little extra time for prayer before the chaos of my day erupts. But because I am committed to this growth, because it is on my radar to be a friend of the Lord, many moments in the day present themselves as opportunities to grow. My entire day becomes an opportunity to grow in holiness.

If you want to grow in holiness, or grow in prayer, you do not need to "delay gratification." Instead, be gratified by the delay of prayer. Find gratitude in taking a few moments of quiet each day to rest with the Lord, to bring before the Holy One the contents of your heart. To open yourself a little bit more each day, to make your heart more vulnerable to God, is to make yourself susceptible to finding joy in your journey of holiness.

The young man quote above is all too typical. If you focus on a future destination, you'll only ever know frustration: no matter where you get to, there'll always be something more in the distance. Learn to enjoy the process, to embrace the daily struggles and rejoice in the daily conquests, and you will find that the slow burn of discipleship will transform your life in remarkable ways. Or, to quote Saint Peter Claver:

Seek God in all things and we shall find God by our side. 
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