Proust, Marshmallows & Meaning In Life

Bookmark and Share With his In Search of Lost Time (formerly Remembrance of Things Past) as one of the few 20th Century works of literary genius, Marcel Proust found memories in the taste of a petite madeleine. They were some of the most unique things about himself. A recluse, he did not go on expedition to the arctic nor did he venture far from his cork-lined room in Paris, but his life was an interior adventure in which he sought to unravel the mysteries of time. With involuntary memory he looked for the permanent and significant amidst the transitory and trivial. Quite simply, he created great art from trivia. In each of us, the trivia is the most important thing about us--"impressions clustered in small knots," Proust said. This trivia he called "inner time" and it is the past that "still lives in us." It is "what we are and is remaking us every moment." An hour is a vase, "filled with perfumes, sounds, places, climates."

From a trivial marshmallow, in 1972 Walter Mischel worked an experiment that helped predict the personality and future of children as well as give us insight into the nature of what is popularly called free will.
You can read about the marshmallow experiment elsewhere, but its essence is this. A child of three or four was seated in a room with a marshmallow (or oreo cookie or pretzel) on the table next him or her. Before leaving the room the researcher told the child that he would be back in fifteen minutes and if the marshmallow was still on the table at his return, the child would be rewarded with a second goodie.

Looking through a TV monitor at the room, the researcher could see the child struggling with temptation. Some would "tug on their pigtails." Others would hold their hands over their eyes or kick the desk or even "stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal." Some would eat it as soon as the researcher left the room.

Of the 600 participants about one third were able to defer gratification. 200 out of 600. A follow-up study on these 200 as adolescents revealed them to be significantly more competent in studies and social skills. They also achieved higher SAT scores. Early on, they knew how to defer gratification.

Our lives are built on such small things, most often without realizing it. We think of our lives in terms of broad brush strokes, of career paths, of rites of passage, but those paths and those rites were partly shaped by a continuous string of fleeting moments like the temptation of marshmallows and how we reacted to it: a chance compliment or insult on an important date, a missed catch or drop kick in the big game Our characters are built by how, over time, we perceive those moments.

In Proust's day, the model for character-building was different. The generally accepted model was this. Stage one was perception. Upon perceiving something, the object perceived was, as a second stage, assessed in terms of long-term interest for the individual. What was in his best interests? Drink a glass of whiskey? Or wait for another "marshmallow"? (a healthy future without alcohol addiction.) After the evaluation, the third step was for him to exercise his will. If an individual succumbed to temptation he was regarded as weak-willed. Head and heart were metaphors used in Victorian times. The head must control the heart, else the heart, the emotions, would take over. Above all, will was important. An instrument of reason, it provided a dam against the flood of feelings.

Modern cognitive psychology yields another point of view. The marshmallow experiment helps us understand it. The experiment suggests there are not three stages, perception, evaluation, and will, before a choice is made. Instead, the first stage, perception itself, either helps long-term interests or hinders them. Read: strategies for perception. If they looked at it with longing, the children were bound to eat the marshmallow. If they hid eyes, pulled pigtails, or stroked the goodie, they were altering how they perceived the marshmallow--less longingly, more distractedly. They were manipulating the unconscious so it didn't over-ride the conscious.

Today, we understand that the will via reason, cannot serve as a dam against the unconscious, for the nether brain is often too strong for reason to withstand. 19th Century iron will, the dam against emotion, is passé. The children with deferred-gratification skills demonstrated strategies to circumvent--not dam--the power of the unconscious. Through strategies, they re-shaped unconscious processes. These skills became habits in later life, and a part or their inner story.

An asthmatic, Proust shaped his novel and his life through his illness. In them he found meaning. He wrote that "in sickness, we become aware that, far from being alone, we live chained to--yet worlds apart from--a creature of a different order who does not know us and to whom it is impossible for us to make ourselves understood: our body." Like the unconscious, the body has a tendency to go its own way. Proust's stratagem was to give meaning to his life through the very illnesses that kept him from the world--that otherwise would have prevented him from finding that meaning. His life narrative was a story of his sickness, and his search for lost time was a quest for something permanent in a fading life. He had little use for those who did not appreciate the fleetingness of their lives--the bored, the social butterflies. They were idlers who "slept" through the passing of life's moments. His ailing body made Proust acutely aware of his mortality. As Samuel Johnson put it, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

From Proust and from the children in the marshmallow experiment we can learn something of major importance. Just as perceptual devices help shape the future course of life, so self-narratives help determine how we perceive life. Proust's narrative was illness as metaphor. It led to a work of genius. Most of us, though, would opt for happy, fulfilled lives with children and mates of like spirit. The stories we tell about ourselves are like the perceptions of the kids with marshmallows--they shape how we respond to situations. Children do not form a narrative about their lives until into adolescence, but for the rest of their lives they live in their story, influenced by how they learned to deal with perceptions early on.

In The Redemptive Self, Northwestern psychology professor Dan P. McAdams, says of personal narratives,“We find that when it comes to the big choices people make--Should I marry this person? Should I take this job? Should I move across the country?--they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not.” He points out that seeing oneself in a narrative is not indulgence; it is central to who we are.

Just as the successful children devised effective perceptual strategies that stood them in good stead as adults, so we can change the perception of our lives by our narratives.

Proust shaped his life out of the search for time in memory. He went forward into the future by gazing into the past. His rooms were lined with cork to dull sounds, to keep out the bustle of life, to protect him from the relentless, surging world. From him we can learn though. He was formed by how he perceived his life, and by his narrative thereof. So are we. Like Proust, we should not only think of our lives in broad brush strokes, but should be attentive to perceptions and where we want them to lead our lives.

From my former Zen teacher, Joko Beck, I learned something about attention. She gave the koan lesson of a student who once asked Master Ichu, "Please write for me something of great wisdom."

With his brush, the master wrote the character for attention. It was just one word.

The student asked, "Is that all?" Saying it did not at all sound profound or subtle, he asked the master what it meant.

Master Ichu replied, "Attention means attention."

Ichu meant that for meditation in a zendo nothing should be added to the perception. The marshmallow experiment indicates that for life fulfillment in a difficult and challenging society, something should be added.

For Proust attention meant attention with the search for lost time. Be alert. Pay attention to our perceptions, he would have said. As we attend to them with our perceptual devices we shape or reshape our life narratives and thereby our present and future sense of fulfillment and happiness.
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