“…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20
Mass had just ended, and I stepped into the narthex. I was quickly approached by an acquaintance, who with a sling on his left arm, relayed the unfortunate news of his recent injury. He had fallen six feet while coming down a ladder from the deer stand, and due to multiple fractures in his upper arm, surgery involving multiple screws and a metal plate had been undertaken. He indicated that in his slight haste to come out of the tree, he had not taken his fingers out of his gloves and his hand slipped from the rung of the ladder.
A little ways back, I published an article entitled “The Cornerstone of God’s Design.” In it, I detailed a number of reasons in which even more than life and unity, it appears that God’s design of this world is predicated on that of free will, even in extenuating, harsh circumstances. Following articles on this “free will discourse” included So the Bible Says – So Our Lifestyles Say Not and What the Eucharist Teaches Us About Free Will continued to explore this topic, leading to a further discussion of healing and development as it relates to this line of discussion. Throughout these articles, the purpose is not to question that God works mysteriously in our lives to provide healing and guidance even when we are not aware. Examples and teachings abound to support this. Yet it seems that even a cursory review of the lives of human beings suggests that what we do with (and how we develop) our free will is of ultimate importance, even in matters that seem (on the surface) to bear no spiritual implications. Consider further as follows.
A 4-year-old girl stares at the marshmallow. The man who is in charge tells her that if she waits until he returns, she can have two of them. Her mouth begins to water. The seconds click away on the wall clock until finally she can’t bear it anymore. She snatches it up and almost swallows it whole. Little did she know that the cameras were rolling, and she and many other young kids her age were part of a long-term experiment (that later came to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow studies) to see just how much self-control predicts all sorts of later outcomes.
Ten to fifteen years later, this girl and many other children are assessed on many factors. The results are astounding. The longer children waited for the two marshmallows at the pre-school age, the more likely they were to be rated in adolescence and young adulthood as being more attentive, competent, organized, self-motivated, optimistic, and intelligent. Perhaps the most stunning finding was the significant correlation between the number of seconds a 4-year-old took to grab the marshmallow and their SAT scores. Those who did not grab the marshmallow scored on average 200 points higher than those who did. The decades that followed bring similar findings. Three factors in pre-school are found to be associated with all sorts of adult outcomes: self-control, IQ, and socioeconomic status (SES). Self-control is defined as skills related to self-discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance. A child’s self-control at the age of three, regardless of their IQ and SES, is significantly associated with the following areas at the age of thirty-two: physical health, substance dependence, socioeconomic status, wealth, single- vs. two- parent rearing, financial planfulness/difficulties, and likelihood of criminal conviction. Although early self-control is a significant lifelong predictor, improved self-control is associated with improved outcomes in all aforementioned areas. And of the three, it is the only one that can be taught and improved for all people over the long-term.
As we further consider God’s design, and occurrence of suffering in human beings, we come to a seminal conclusion. Bad things do happen to good people, even when sometimes they are doing everything right. But a closer review of all human suffering since the beginning of time, intentional or unintentional, reveals an undeniable truth. So much of the suffering of self and others occurs not just as a result of how we intentionally direct our actions, but often when the necessary precursor of self-controlꟷattention to the task at handꟷis either compromised or non-existent. In other words, in order to use our free will to regulate or direct our behaviors, we must have a level of focus that allows us to recognize the potential danger at hand.
In 2016, over 161,000 people in the U.S. died from unintentional injuries. The previous year there had been 30.8 million ER visits for accidental injuries. Although some of the injuries or deaths were related to orthopedic issues or failed equipment, many of these accidents were related to distractions or poor-decision-making. Whether it was traffic accidents, accidental falls, or unintentional poisonings, so many of these circumstances involved decision-making that was not grounded in the astute use of free will through directed attention and self-control.
When we as human beings are faced with unexpected tragedies, we are often quick to look for an explanation that will ease our heartache. Very often we hear ourselves or others utter words such as “it must have been his time” or “God must have a reason that we can’t understand.” We understandably look for an explanation that provides some reassurance, for just as we have been taught that God is the gatekeeper of life, so God is the gatekeeper of death.
Yet rarely do we consider that inherent within His design of all that happens in this world is a simple, but often hard to swallow message. Those who pay closest attention, and discern their decisions with care, are often those who often suffer the least. Of course, just as quick as this statement is uttered come immediate challenges and rebuttals. “But what about those people born in poverty, or with a congenital condition, or who lived in the path of a tornado, or who contracted lung cancer and never smoked a day in his life?” What about these people, who may very well have paid close attention to detail in what life seemed to demand, and yet still suffered immensely? How do you explain this with the idea that God’s design is founded on just how intently and intentionally we attend to and direct our free will?
The answer to these retorts lies in a simple observation. God created this world so that we would never be in full control, and thus always dependent on Him. And yet in doing so, what He did leave to our control has everything to do with the attention we heed from an earliest age. Interestingly, one of the earliest signs of cognitive skills in an infant is his or her degree of visual attention. From there, our ability as parents to assist our kids in acquiring skills of sustained focus, discernment, decision-making, and emotional regulation as they grow older is nothing short of God’s work, even for those kids who may naturally struggle. Every act of virtue or vice will be determined by it. Every health related behavior will be controlled by it. Every decision linked to love, career, and family will be influenced by it. Theology and science both come to the same conclusion. That is, just how we allocate our attention and free will is intimately related to both life and death. And theology purports it is related to what happens after it, too, although God always has the final call.
Deep within the theology of free will (and the attention required to use it well) is a logical conclusion. If what we do with our free will is of utmost importance, then anything that threatens it is to be taken very seriously. For if God allows for death and injury to routinely happen to those who do not pay close attention and make prudent decisions, then it may turn out that distractions are one of our greatest enemies. Combined with the malicious and reckless use of free will, our ability to pay attention, and act accordingly on all kinds of matters, sets the stage for much of the suffering that occurs. So often we are focused on the obvious transgressions that are marked by the commandments that we know so well. But as CS Lewis noted in his classic Screwtape Letters, “You will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his [our] wandering attention.”
As the Lord notes in Isaiah (51:4), “”Pay attention to Me, O My people, And give ear to Me, O My nation; For a law will go forth from Me, And I will set My justice for a light of the peoples.” In paying attention to Him, we must wonder if the same admonition applies to all that happens in the world around us―the one in which He created. His design of the world suggests that if we are to reduce suffering and find greater joy, it would be a good place to start. Maybe this is why prudence, not confused with being a prude, is widely considered the first of the cardinal virtues.
We began this discourse with the idea that free will is the cornerstone of God’s design. We continued with a treatise that how (or not) we co-partner with God in our lifestyles each day will have much to do with how much His image and likeness of us is revealed. We explored the ways in which Catholic teachings around His presence in the Eucharist, the greatest gift we could ever receive, directly depend on just how lovingly, knowingly, and openly we receive him. Now, we have reached a point where we consider that the formation of our attention and self-control, necessary for our use of free will, may turn out to be the single most important human attribute in our search for health, harmony, happiness, and even heaven.
As Christ once noted (Matthew 25:13,29), “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour…For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” We must consider. Does God’s design reward those who are taught and learn how to be alert to what matters most, so that their actions become more willful and discerning of what is asked of them, moment by moment, day by day, so one day they will be free?