NAVA: Self-mastery will solve not-so delayed gratification

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Every columnist is entitled to at least one Andy Rooney harangue during his or her tenure. The curmudgeon-commentator of the CBS television program “60 Minutes,” Rooney is a consummate groaner and has a penchant for targeting the habits and ideals of people younger than he. And at his age of 91, that’s almost everyone.

This is my Andy Rooney rant, and it’s directed to everyone, including myself.

Earlier this month, I was walking to class and happened upon a glistening, black 2009 Mercedes C-300 Luxury Sedan parked on my street of mostly decrepit frat houses and dated apartment buildings.

The contrast of Chicagoland wealth next to collegiate poverty glared like the car’s rims. While I admired this Teutonic beauty, I watched as its owner — a young, very attractive female armed with her Starbucks and MacBook — leapt out of the vehicle, clicked the lock button twice — this is Milwaukee after all — and dashed to class as fast as her little flip-flops could carry her.

I have since wondered what these daddy gifts say about our society and how we reward children for their accomplishments.

Here’s a case in which I suspect the reward outshone the most probable achievement (i.e., getting into a Midwestern college). It would still be a stretch of modesty if the car had been parked in Cambridge, Mass. or Princeton, N.J. Marquette is a great school, but we’re only ranked somewhere in the top eighty schools of the country. If Marquette kids are driving Benzes, what are they driving at Harvard?

The problem of this disproportionate gratification, a type of something-for-nothing syndrome, troubles members of all socioeconomic strata in our country. It’s just more visible among the rich.

You’ll find it among the poor and middle-class who were duped into sub-prime mortgages in a false era of entitled home ownership. We are still paying off these daddy gifts of distressed or foreclosed homes abandoned by persons with shoddy credit. And like some of their blameworthy creditors, they ran as fast as their bailouts could carry them.

There was a time when scrimping and saving were American virtues. Second-hand clothing could be worn without shame. Hard work was the only credit you had, and you never left home without it. College students once walked, biked or took the bus to school, even at Harvard.

But our present circumstances of wanting without working shouldn’t surprise us.

Perhaps it’s our psychological fate to reap without sowing.

Consider the famous 1960s Stanford study that presented a group of 4-year-olds with an option to either eat one marshmallow in the beginning or to wait 20 minutes for the addition of another marshmallow to their plate. Some waited, and others could not resist. The researchers followed the progress of the children into adulthood and found that the savers were better adjusted and more dependable. Even their SAT scores were higher.

Maybe, then, the smart Ivy League students aren’t driving anything special after all.

Whatever the source of our desire to reward without effort may be, I think the solution lies in self-mastery. One of the hardest things about life is learning how to say “no” to both ourselves and to others. As I’ve argued before in these pages, not every desire is worthy of our attention.

Whether it’s a Benz or a marshmallow, objects of our wanting can disappear if we simply interrogate them in the same way the survivors of the Great Depression had to: “Do I really need it? Or do I just want it? Can I make do without it?”

Honor these hard questions with true answers, and — poof — the Benz, the marshmallow and the national debt can all just disappear.

I’ll see you on the bus.

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