Of Men and Marshmallows

If I don't get the things I am after

I'm going to scream!

I want the works,

I want the whole works!

Presents and prizes and sweets and surprises in all shapes and sizes,

And now!

Don't care how...I want it now!

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Veruca Salt’s inability to temper her desires forced Willy Wonka to expel her down a garbage chute from his chocolate factory.

One look at today’s culture of impatience tells me Veruca didn’t remain stuck in the chute, nor was incinerated, but landed safely among us and now heads the Ministry of Human Virtues tasked with turning a new generation of children and young adults into speed addicts, lacking grit, and who suffer from an acute and debilitating intolerance to limited choice, discomfort, and disappointment. This epidemic of intemperance pits companies in an arms race creating a feedback loop that shows no signs of slowing down: from same-day delivery of most anything, to instant answers on Google, to uninterrupted video streaming, to sex-in-a-swipe through Tinder, Bumble, and Badoo.

At what cost?

In the 1960s, Stanford University conducted a study on the benefits of delayed gratification. In it, children were placed in a room with one marshmallow on a plate and given a simple instruction: you can eat the marshmallow now or wait fifteen minutes and receive two marshmallows (watch video).

Researchers tracked the children for several decades and found that those who had waited differed significantly from the children who couldn’t. The children who passed the marshmallow test had developed:

· Better emotional coping skills

· Higher rates of educational attainment

· Lower Body Mass Index

· Lower divorce rates

· Lower rates of addiction

In The Hero in You, I offer boys the virtue of Temperance as an antidote to impatience.

Temperance, or moderation - from Latin temperantia "sobriety, discretion, self-control" - was one of the Four Cardinal Virtues in classical antiquity and one of the Life Forces my book proposes for a flourishing life.

To drive the point across, I use American writer Jack London as an example; an anti-hero of sorts.

Any kid or young man who reads London’s biography up until he turned thirty-seven will find him irresistible and want to emulate his rugged and adventurous life. Self-taught sailor and oyster pirate at age fifteen, gold-prospector at twenty-one, hobo, journalist, and highest-paid writer of his time, London lived fast and died hard, aged forty, burdened by debts, consumed by alcoholism, and addicted to morphine.

A few months before his death, Jack told a group of friends:

“I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Daring words, surely; enough to make any man want to throw caution to the wind and plunge into a reckless adventure of his own. 

But in my view, it is a false choice, similar to “U.S.A. Love it or Leave it!" 

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  Best to rise from life as from a banquet, said Aristotle, neither thirsty or drunken.

Jack London swallowed his one marshmallow in one intemperate gulp. Had he read Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot, it is conceivable he would’ve enjoyed many more marshmallows, and a longer, healthier, more flourishing life.

Plato uses the chariot to describe man’s tripartite soul. Reason acts as the charioteer, harnessing and guiding the black horse of rebellious emotions and ardent desire, or Eros, and the white horse of thumos - Greek for “spiritedness” - considered essential to virility.

Only in the past century has the word ‘virility’ been displaced by the more anodyne ‘masculinity’ and ‘manliness,’ writes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker. 

“In Ancient Rome,” he points out, “virilitas migrated to the center of male identity. The virile man wasn’t just sexually assertive, powerfully built, and procreative, but also intellectually and emotionally level headed; vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained. The virile is not simply what is manly; it is more. It is self-assurance and maturity, courage and greatness accompanied by strength and vigor. The defining quality of virilitas was self-control, an ethic of moderation, in which strong or vigorous powers were kept deliberately reined in [like Plato’s horses]. If a man became too aggressive, too emotional, or too brawny—too manly—his virility could be lost.”

Many boys today are not being taught to develop the virtue of temperance and understand its value. Instead, they receive toxically ambiguous messages such as “Live dangerously! Be a Man!” - without clarification or a roadmap by which to navigate the path to authentic, virile manhood. They are presented with false, or one-sided male heroes without shedding light on their folly and foibles. 

Jack London allowed the white horse of his thumos to run amok. He embodied macho bravado, not virility, and paid a heavy price as a result. While my life hardly compares, when I turned thirty-six, I, too, lost control of my horses and drove my chariot straight into the abyss. 

Which is one of the reasons I’m writing The Hero in You: to prevent our youth from following Veruca Salt down the garbage chute.

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Read the boy’s version. 

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