Willpower

When I was small, just old enough to to take gleeful pride in being able to read, I was farmed out to a family of pious moles near the Welsh border. The days were long and wet and the highlight of the week was a visit to the church. Unlike the burrow, which was bare and chilly and gloomy and dim, the church was cheerfully whitewashed and the walls were decorated with biblical texts framed in colourful painted borders. The one I could see best from my spot in the pew was ‘Cry aloud, fpare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and fhew my people their tranfgreffion, and the houfe of Jakob their fins.’ I never expected to understand all the words and I hadn’t known that humans had fins. But as I sat pinned between the adult members of a family which held firmly that small moles were to be seen and not heard, what had my little lungs swelling with emotion was the exaltation to cry aloud and lift my voice like a trumpet. From that moment I knew I could be wildly transgressive on the inside and no-one would know, and that words could change how I felt.

So perhaps it is not surprising that from time to time have the urge to plaster the walls of my burrow with advice to myself: in text, but perhaps also in images. The kind of advice might vary a little, but just now it is about the little matter of delaying gratification.

I have been battling with myself recently. I am not sure whether it is I or Myself who begins the argument, but one of the two is all for staying snuggled in bed, and the other can imagine the glorious sunrise from the top of Knocklofty. Snuggled-in-Bed closes its eyes and ears to the coming day and the stiffness and inertia brought on by inactivity. Sun-Rise knows that inspiration comes on the Knocklofty heights, that the brain will be clearer, the body more limber after an early morning walk.

I have seldom seen the tension between instant and delayed gratification manifested more clearly than in the filmed studies based on Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment. Small moles are left in a bare room. They sit at a table with a marshmallow in front of them and they are promised a second one if they can hold off eating the first for fifteen minutes.

I can feel their battle so keenly I almost become one of them as they pick up the marshmallow, look at it, smell it, turn it around, put it down, pick it up, put it down again, look at the ceiling, hyperventilate, squirm, pick it up again, squeeze it, put it to their snouts, put it down again, put their heads in their paws, hum, make faces, turn away, sing, tap at the table.

But what if we are talking about more than the fifteen minutes for the marshmallow, more than the day of the walk. How about a year or ten? Two things have to be in place for such self-discipline: the abstract idea of future reward, and trust that it will be granted. Or the abstract idea of something negative in the future if we don’t do something to mitigate it now. But this abstraction cannot be vague. It has to be so strong visualised it feels utterly real.

When one small mole was unable to stop herself from eating a marshmallow, Mischel suggested she try again but to imagine a frame around it. She held out, and when asked why she didn’t eat the marshmallow she said it was because it was a picture. There was something about this observation that unsettled me in the same way as Magritte’s ‘Treachery of Images’; his painting of a pipe captioned ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

This is the encouragement I want to paste to the wall of my burrow: something that represents that small mole’s strength of vision and willpower.

‘Ceci n’est pas un marshmallow’.

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