A defect of mine that I have struggled with for years is a failure to appreciate delayed gratification. If I was not Jimi Hendrix within a couple of weeks I was unlikely to continue practicing the guitar, and as my GCSEs approached and my textbooks still lay unopened I had no thoughts of university or careers. It is a skill that I believe I have made progress with, though there is much to do. Why do you think I’m blogging when I have a book to write?
I am not alone in this. Indeed, I think that our ability to appreciate delayed gratification has declined in recent years. People want and expect their pleasures to be timely, frequent and intense – be they related to media, food or, of course, romantic and sexual experiences. In politics, too, this trend appears to be significant. People expect reform to be almost instantaneous.
I thought of this as I pondered the fact that by 2016, most young arrivals in Britain will be born outside of wedlock. Millions of them will grow up in safe, happy homes, of course, be it with married or cohabiting mums and dads or single parents. One cannot judge individual examples. In broad terms, though, I think this trend will have grave effects. Cohabiting couples are far likelier to separate than husbands and wives, and to leave their children with lone parents. The holes in their lives are likely to be damaging, and the boyfriends who fill them, if their guardians are women, are far likelier to be abusive than biological dads. Quite apart from the effects on children, though, there are all the people who are destined to grow old alone. It can harm one’s brain and body and I suspect it can be no good for one’s heart. There have always been hermits but only a few.
Eli Finkel, director of social psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, spoke on the decline of marriage at a recent conference. In old times it tended to be an economic institution. Love was doubtless involved but any reader of Jane Austen knows that money was also a central concern. People needed kids to look after them once their bodies failed them, and it took a man to plow the fields and women to raise the children. As lives grew less precarious, love and companionship became more significant aspects of marital considerations. In recent decades, though, these have been joined by an individualistic desire for marriage to facilitate one’s self-expression. Finkel claims that men and women can become impatient when such grand desires are not easily fulfilled, and do not invest the time and feeling needed to form stable, mutually satisfying relationships.
I suspect that the normalisation of promiscuity and porn have also led many to grow frustrated in monogamous households. Some can settle down, of course, but others seem to find that the diversity of erotic offerings elsewhere leave them forever lusting after the thrill of the new. In the hope of drawing an at least somewhat fitting analogy, I had far deeper relationships with albums before I had a million different songs at my fingertips.
Live as you believe is right. I do not to have absolute standards to prescribe. It appears to me, though, that it is at least wise to attempt to train oneself to live not simply for today, nor for tomorrow, but in appreciation of the length of existences and the subtlety and depth of their consolations. Living as if tomorrow could be one’s last day on the planet only makes sense if this is not much of an exaggeration.
Have a happy Valentine’s Day.