The Dangers of Instant Gratification

The data suggests that the fastest growing religious group in the United States today are “nones”, which refer to the growing number of people who reply “none” when asked of their religious affiliation.  Into this expanding vacuum is an attitude and a practice that has an almost religious-like quality to it, and that has gripped the psyches of an astounding number of people.    I am referring to instant gratification.  In the last few weeks it has been widely reported that All-Pro football player Travis Kelce and megapopstar Taylor Swift are an “item”.  At a recent national television broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom Kelce plays, the camera zoomed on an ecstatic Taylor Swift cheering on her new boyfriend while eating something that was drenched in ranch dressing.  Within days, supplies of ranch dressing at grocery stores ran out.  Sales of Travis Kelce jerseys went up 400%. 

“If I get it (a salad dressing or the jersey)” , the thinking goes, “and get it now, my life will change – for the better”. 

The desire for instant gratification plays out in other arenas of life, with far more serious consequences and implications.  The New York Times reported last week that in the last months of his presidency Donald Trump was set to order missile strikes on drug cartels in Mexico, a proposal that was nixed by various generals, but has nonetheless crept into some policy platforms of the Republican party.  Bomb the drug smugglers into oblivion, the thinking went, and we will solve the opioid problem.   We will worry about the consequences later, if at all.    

Also last week a small group of dissident Republican legislators succeeded in voting Kevin McCarthy out as Speaker of the House of Representatives.   They took delight in their accomplishment, but it has become abundantly clear that they had no plan for what might come next – and apparently didn’t really care.  They got rid of the guy they didn’t want.  Instant gratification.

As the horror of the war in Gaza and Israel continues to unfold, there have been the inevitable accusations of ascribing blame for the lack of preparedness for the Hamas attack.  And there is growing pressure from some quarters to solve the crisis –quickly, and with finality (and with even more violence).  Such an approach provides a measure of instant gratification, and at the same time disregards the fact that the conflict over land in that region goes back thousands of years, with more factions on each side than any of us can accurately count. 

The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) said that he wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but would give his life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.   The complexity of this latest Mideast crisis is mind boggling.  Yes, Hamas needs to be stopped, but how to stop it without creating more insidious incarnations of Hamas is a conundrum that requires sorting through the all the threads of complexity.

Instant gratification avoids complexity.  Instant gratification is averse to exploring consequences of actions and decisions.  The instant gratification impulse tends to make matters worse.

Many of the indigenous tribes that originally inhabited the land we call the United States had an unofficial policy:  that they wouldn’t make a decision about hunting, farming, or building until they could foresee how their action would affect life and land five generations into the future.  In a somewhat similar fashion, Jesus said “the poor will always be with you”  (Mathew 26:11).  To my mind, Jesus’ statement is an admonition to people who aren’t poor need to be in relationship with people who are.  Instead of treating those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder as mere data points, or a category of people who can be either shunned or demeaned, we should build relationships in which people with financial resources and those without can learn from one another.   Where there is give and take.  Jesus’ charge is a challenge to deal with complexity, with the hope that through it some sort of resolution can emerge.  Establishing relationships, examining consequences to the fifth generation, and dealing with complexity, is the necessary antidote to instant gratification.  Dealing with complexity is an authentic – and life giving, religious response.


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