Sunday, 22 February 2015

The rewards of a little self-denial in Lent are extraordinary

A Stanford academic, Walter Mischel devised the ground-breaking 'marshmallow test’.  It was a very simple test. They put a young child alone in a room with a marshmallow. The child was given a choice; they could eat the marshmallow straight-away, or wait 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow in reward for waiting. They were filmed and those kids who succeeded in waiting were given a second marshmallow.

In the decades that followed, they kept tabs on the kids.  In 2013, Walter Mischel was interviewed by Charlie Rose on his findings, notably that the kids who resisted eating the marshmallow got better marks in school, were less likely to take drugs and predictably were less likely to be obese.

Now that we are entering the season of Lent, many of us are a little bit like the kids in the experiment, willing ourselves to ‘give up’ something sweet and pleasurable for a set time.

If we’re giving up chocolate, paying for our groceries in shops that place keyboard sized bars of Cadbury’s around the tills will be a time when self-discipline is required.  Those of us who give up gin and tonics may have to go to functions and parties where the smell of juniper is heavy in the air, but doing our Lenten penance will mean saying no to the offer of a drink.

We won’t be video-taped and a team of psychologists will not be pouring over our responses.  And we’re not doing Lenten penances as some academic experiment to measure our self-mastery. Rather the Christian is doing Lenten penances with the view to being rewarded with grace and growing in holiness.


At the same time that we are trying to grow in holiness, there could also be added psychological benefits to undergoing Lenten penance. Another Stanford psychology academic Kelly McGonigal spoke on the finding that willpower is like a muscle, it gets stronger the more you use it (see seven minutes into the lecture). 

By giving up sugary snacks, beer and wine, we could very well improve our strength of will and feel good about ourselves for having stayed the course.  

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald.  You may see a fuller list of my work by perusing my author archive

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Don’t denounce the people who go to see Fifty Shades of Grey – just tell them about this book

The film is a deceitful fantasy. 
A book about a girl's murder tells the real story
Many years ago, a Traddie friend of mine was round at my place when they let out a squeak of shock, “Mary, what is this book?!”  It was Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr Goodbar.  It had a book-cover of a dead girl in a bed. After all, it is a novel based on the real-life murder of Roseanne Quinn, a school-teacher who was a lonely singleton in New York City.

In 1973 Roseanne was a 28 year-old Catholic girl who haunted single bars to pick up men for one-night-stands. It is said that Roseanne became addicted to the ‘high’ that she got from having increasingly abusive sex with violent men.

‘Why are you reading it?’ asked my friend.  They began to understand when I explained that it was an honest portrayal of an insecure woman who sought out sadomasochistic sex, until she was slain. Putting it into today’s disgusting language, she wanted to be ‘sexually dominated’.

Looking for Mr Goodbar has themes in common with Fifty Shades of Grey. Yet while I recommendLooking for Mr Goodbar, I avoid the filthy flick Fifty Shades of Grey.  Here’s the difference: Rossner’s novel serves as a truthful story (and cautionary tale) as to what ensues when self-doubting women look to cruel, vicious men to validate their sense of self-worth. Ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey is a deceitful, glamorised fantasy. The nasty truth is that it will pack cinemas because an audience can ‘get off’ on the scenes of a young woman being gladly and gratefully sexually abused.

Even if I wanted to see Fifty Shades of Grey, I’d have to refuse because I hold that watching it is a sin. It entails looking at impure images which inevitably give rise to impure thoughts.  That said, while I slam the film, it doesn’t mean that I’m entitled to denounce people who will watch it. Looking down our noses and treating them as if we are better than they are – will alienate them from us. We need to have more compassion than reviling them as consumers of filth.

For one thing the film is released on St Valentine’s Day (poor St Valentine – his feast day is being used as a sordid marketing tool). This means that a lot of young women will be forced to decide between going on a date to see Fifty Shades or sitting home alone. 

If you have a friend who is an avid fan of Fifty Shades of Grey, consider ordering them a copy of Looking for Mr Goodbar. It’s the work of a brilliant Jewish novelist, a page-turner and will de-glamorise abusive sexual relationships.  

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald, do visit the magazine for breaking news and lively debate and discussion. 
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