Finding Meaning

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Restrain myself?

By Skip Hellewell
By Skip Hellewell

The meaning of our life—born out of our better choices—is publicly revealed at our passing.  Did you read LIz Goldner’s obituaryfor Laguna’s Mark Chamberlain in last week’s Indy?  In the telling of his life, with words kind and caring, she preserved its meaning.  Chamberlain’s role in creating “The Tell” —a mountain-sized photography display and centerpiece of the campaign to save Laguna Canyon—was a creative challenge to relentless urban sprawl. Preserving nature will get you a place on the “boardwalk of meaning.”  An obituary is the final tally of a life’s meaning.  Make your friends proud—leave some meaningful material for your obituary.  Make better choices—as many as you can manage.

It’s not as easy as it might sound.  Choice is a complex dance.  Free choice isn’t so free; there are consequences.  Choice works better if coupled with self-restraint.  Pleasure is increased if you have the will to wait.  The French, as an example, dine slowly.  There’s time for conversation between courses. Portions are smaller; it’s more about enjoying the taste.  A meal is a savory delight, but for all the emphasis on cuisine, the French are seldom overweight.  Their food culture blends enjoyment with self-restraint.

Do you recall the famous marshmallow experiments at Stanford?  Four-year-olds were placed at a table with a bell, and a treat, usually a marshmallow.  They could have the single treat anytime just by ringing the bell.  But if they could wait 15 minutes, face-to-face with hot temptation, it was doubled.  A 100% return for a quarter-hour of self-restraint is an exceptional offer.  Some tots could wait the whole time, others couldn’t.

The study then followed the kids through their lives, searching for the fruits of their will to wait.  The self-restraint developed at 4 years of age yielded life-long benefits.  Those with the stronger will did better on college entrance exams, gained more education, had a lower BMI, and more money in their retirement savings.  They had less chronic disease and enjoyed better health.  They were also better at developing and maintaining relationships.

The kids displayed creativity in coping with temptation.  Some used distance, pushing the treat to the farthest corner of the table.  Others focused elsewhere, looking at the ceiling, or inspecting their hands.  One rotated in his chair to examine the opposite wall.  A few imagined the marshmallow as inedible, like a picture, or a puffy cloud, rather than a sweet treat.  Self-restraint strategies were creative and, age considered, well formed.

Study leader Dr. Walter Mischel later wrote a book “The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success.”  Mischel’s most important finding is that self-restraint can be developed.  Whatever your level of will-power, it can be improved.  This optimistic conclusion has implications for the choices we make, and offers hope for greater meaning in our lives.

We started this discussion of choice several weeks ago with Robert Frost’s poem about two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood.”  Choices define our journey.  We then visited the work of Auschwitz survivor, Dr. Edith Eger.  Eger taught that despite the horrors that might visit us, we can choose the meaning of it.  “Suffering is universal,” she noted, “but victimhood is a choice.”  This week we added self-restraint as a necessary element to optimize our lives.

Choice is a complex dance, a balancing act between freedom and restraint. But when we get it right, the music is beautiful.  And life becomes meaningful—like Mark Chamberlain’s.

 

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

 

 

 

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

 

 

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