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PENNING: You can read this column later, if you can wait

• Aug 10, 2017 at 2:00 PM

You don’t have to read this column right now. Set it aside for later. Read it when you have the time to read it slowly. Finish that looming chore or other task first.

Then, and only then, read this column. You might enjoy it more.

I say all that with the assumption that you would read this column at all, and that if you do it has some urgency in your mind. But really I say it to make a point — that our society has too often lost the fine practice of delayed gratification.

Several semesters ago, I was reminded in a pleasant way of this concept. I was giving a final exam, and I passed around some treats my wife had made for students to enjoy during finals. Students were helping themselves as they were passed around, but one student brought the plate up to me in the front of the classroom without having taken one.

“Don’t want one?” I asked, more curiously than offended.

“Yes, but after I finish the exam. I want to have one as a reward — you know, delayed gratification,” the student explained.

This was impressive to me from a young person, even more so because he took almost the longest to finish the exam, thus adding to his self-imposed delay. I remember noticing him thinking deeply, and writing carefully, about each question.

When he came back to the front to turn in his exam, I asked what I often ask: “How do you think you did?”

“Pretty good,” he said calmly. “Now, I can reward myself.” And he smiled and helped himself to a treat.

The reason this story sticks out to me is because it exemplifies something so rare. If we ever have delayed gratification, it is often something imposed on us by an external force. We call our resulting action trying to be patient, and often failing. But the kind of self-control and deliberate denial of self and impulse this young man showed was instructive.

By comparison, consider all the ways our culture demands instant gratification these days. E-commerce is a primary example. People shop online to search and buy in a click what would otherwise take an investment in time and motion.

And speaking of computers, have you ever caught yourself red-faced because a computer screen takes more than 5 seconds to load?

Even in interpersonal situations, people want things right away. People want to get right in to see their doctor and are appalled at having to wait for an appointment. In other instances, people can scarcely wait for a co-worker to finish a conversation or whatever they are doing before they answer a question, all of which are urgent in the mind of those asking.

Don’t get me started on flight delays. People want to get where they are going right away and their emotions take flight if an obvious weather situation means their plane can’t take off immediately. Even when planes take off and land on time, the very definition of an instant gratification mindset is the person who can’t understand why it may take just a few minutes for 100 other people to get luggage and move down a narrow plane aisle before they can get their precious self off the plane.

People “can’t wait” to graduate, but then find the decades of routine work that await could have been put off a bit to savor the brevity and open possibility of the life of a student. Similarly, people are eager for the wedding day but fail to grasp that the lifelong commitment of marriage is not a thing to be obtained instantly.

Traffic jams also test the narrow bounds of our need for instant gratification. People swear and gesture and honk uncontrollably, as if their antics will change the fact that the car in front of them in turn has 100 cars in front of them.

I did admire one man recently waiting for the bridge in Grand Haven. When the lights blinked and the traffic stopped, he put his car in park, his arms behind his head, and looked up and out his window with a smile, as if it was his rare good fortune to be afforded the opportunity to inspect the underside of the U.S. 31 drawbridge.

“Eventually” can be a good word. It is not always associated with lazy procrastination. We should use it positively as a signal of our own self-controlled perspective and ability to accommodate delayed gratification. We’ll get where we’re going and what we want, eventually. And it might even be better having waited.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist. A collection of Penning’s columns in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays” is available at The Bookman.

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