Darkness then Light

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What is better than a tasty, delicious marshmallow? The answer, of course, is two marshmallows. This is the basis for a famous experiment in child psychology conducted at Stanford University in 1972. The premise is well-known. A young child is offered a single marshmallow, but told that if they can wait until the experimenter returns, they will get two.

Some children nodded sagely, waited until the experimenter had left, and promptly scoffed the marshmallow. Others decided to wait and delay gratification to gain twice the reward. The study followed the children in later life and concluded that those who can cope with forward thinking and delayed gratification were more successful as adults.

Now this experiment has been challenged in recent years. Is it really about the transformative effect of willpower, or are there other factors at play? Recently it was repeated, with a twist – the children were told their teachers would be informed how long they waited. Waiting times duly doubled. This implies that those who wait might be motivated more by external approval than personal self-control. Meanwhile other experimenters have pointed out that the original study was small and other factors might have led to the apparent success of the marshmallow delayers.

This week marked the start of Advent. It was celebrated in glorious fashion at The Abbey with the second annual TAPS Christmas Candle-lit Procession from Junior School to Senior School. There was a wonderful fair at the Junior School, with students displaying all their exuberance and entrepreneurial zeal; gorgeous music and carols, mulled wine and mince pies of course, and the rock band to finish it off at the Senior School.

Warmest thanks to The Abbey Parent Society. This kind of event symbolises what TAPS and The Abbey community are all about: coming together in celebration and fellowship and in support of the endeavours of our wonderful students. We are so grateful to organisers and all volunteers for their hard work.

Here’s the link to the marshmallows. Advent used to be a time strongly characterised by delayed gratification. It saw days and weeks of fasting that came to a spectacular end with the Twelve Days of Christmas. Each of those days saw feasting and celebration as a counter to the lean times of self-denial and reflection that had preceded them.

Nowadays the tendency is to do things the other way round. Many people celebrate throughout Advent and then exercise moderation in January. On the face of it, it seems that culturally we may have lost some of our ability to wait for that second marshmallow – especially if our willpower in January is not quite all that we would hope!

The principle of moderation and struggle, followed by celebration, was once widespread. In Celtic and other ancient cultures, the day was envisaged as starting at nightfall: darkness followed by light (hence, in part, the idea of Christmas and New Year’s Eves). Likewise the year began with winter and ended with summer. The same principle could be applied to life first, with associated struggle, followed by the rest and reward of death.

We discussed this cultural shift with senior students this week. Really it is a question of how we hold our futures in view. Can we resolve ourselves to present difficulty – coming back to marshmallows, the agony of the wait – for the sake of future reward? Can we do the hard work when we have to, so that we gain the result that opens the next door?

The challenge is two-fold. The first is to avoid procrastination. Applying the ancient principle of challenge first, treat after is sometimes known as eating the frog. Do the least pleasant thing on the to-do list first, and everything afterwards will feel like a relief.

The second is to be able to wait. Our futures are full of momentous events, some delightful, some daunting. For the children in the experiment, this was the promised arrival of a second marshmallow. How do we keep that future event peaceably in mind without excessive impact on the present?

The children in the experiment apparently deployed a range of techniques. Some sang, some hid their faces and willed time to disappear, some prayed. One of the children, who we must hope is now running the world, dealt with the difficulty masterfully by dint of falling asleep, so avoided all of the angst of her peers and awoke to marshmallow central.

We wish for all our students the strength to act, when action requires courage, and the strength to wait, when waiting requires resolve. And we wish them the ability to stand in a positive relationship with their futures: to look ahead with hope and excitement to all that lies ahead, while absorbing themselves wholly in the joy of the present moment. Happy Advent, all!

Will le Fleming, Head

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