To “delay gratification” – to abstain in the belief of a greater future reward is one of the most important, hard wired capabilities humans posses. It goes to heart of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Handed down through eons of patient trial and error - learned self control is at its most basic - a measure of psychological strength. When hunting a nervous quarry or persevering in the delicate act of creating fire – our ancient ancestors were exercising a mastery over their primitive psychology that underpinned our own, modern contentment in life – until now.
Capitalism and the society we have built upon it supposes the opposite.
What we know as the “free market” now glories in indulgence. Like a cancer, our unsustainable economic model is based on exponential growth which can only be achieved if gratification is glorified.
In the 60s the Saudi’s destroyed the long term viability of their oil wells by pumping the crude out too quickly and damaging the delicate structure of the oil bearing strata below – they couldn’t wait. By the 1980s rock stars were taking supersonic flights to save the lives of starving children – it was too important for Phil to play both sides of the Atlantic. Today, nearly 40% of Americans face a lifetime of obesity and a vile early death - drowning in their own flesh.
The practice of marketing is based on this single core tenant – consume now - satiate yourselves immediately and in so doing – demonstrate your superior financial, emotional and intellectual strength. It is apparently perfectly logical, legal and legitimate for us (and our children) to be told thousands of times a day that a billion years of hard wired biology is erroneous. 30 years on Nestle is still trying to convince mothers of the inferiority of their own breast milk - all brands are as bad – Nestle just happens to be targeting a vulnerable group of individuals we vaguely give a shit about.
Our leaders are very honest with us in this respect - we are told on a regular basis that capitalism will only survive if we all do our patriotic duty and consume. Yet this dysfunctional cycle forces us to make appalling choices that contradict all logic and humanity.
It wasn’t always like this of course. At the dawn of industrialisation greater abundance was heralded as a miracle of a modern age – and rightly so. Individualism and greed, those most powerful of forces the industrial age claimed it could tame, raised millions out of abject poverty and for a while, some of the world knew a (relatively) fairer and more just distribution of resources. It took centuries for those eons of conditioning towards abstinence to begin to fail, and for the delicate boundaries of want to be pushed, further and further until the sane lines of moderate consumption were blurred beyond most people’s comprehension
Now, they are all but gone.
We urgently need to transplant the moderate sentiment expressed as “delayed gratification” with a more urgent call for “early abstinence”.
It is counter intuitive to most of us – but contentment and psychological balance are based in moderation. In an abundant world we are blinded into consumption by unnecessary choice. Only with scarcity can our simple human brains accurately discern true value, and know when to excercise self control.
When one rediscovers abstinence, if that isn’t too facetious a phrase in a world where nearly a billion people live without proper food and water, then one discovers a clearer mind, a more peaceful disposition. I would go so far as to say abstinence might almost be addictive – in as much as it taps into a deep seated desire for control, which although ultimately illusory, touches something enriching within the human psyche.
Not exactly a vote winner I conceed, but pretty important for the longevity of our species...