The last shall be first, and the first shall be last
In the ’60s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted a study that would eventually be known as the marshmallow experiment. This would become one of the key principles in emotional intelligence or EQ (quotient), the delayed gratification principle.
The experiment was conducted among children age 4 to 5. Each was placed in a room with a marshmallow on a table. The experimenter told each child that he/she would leave for around 15 minutes, and the child had two choices. One, ring the bell any time and eat the marshmallow, or two, don’t eat the marshmallow, wait for the experimenter to return, and get a second marshmallow.
The children were later evaluated as teenagers and adults, and across the board, from psycho-emotional to physical aspects, those who were able to delay gratification performed much better than the rest.
As many who followed this almost 50-year study would say, delayed gratification shows that success comes with self-discipline, not ease—no pain, no gain.
This Sunday’s Gospel is the spiritual equivalent of the marshmallow experiment: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Subsequent studies show that the environment had an impact on one’s ability to practice delayed gratification. In a study conducted by Rochester University, a reliable environment, i.e. one that delivers what it promises, helped the subjects in the experiment to develop better delayed gratification skills.
This is one of the challenges for parents, teachers, mentors and formators. How do we make young people believe that self-discipline, patience and perseverance are still reliable principles to live by in a world that has become predominantly a culture of “instants”?
In practically all areas of life, delayed gratification seems counter-cultural: faster Internet speed, fast food, faster and easier means of transport, online transactions, social media and near-instant tipping points.
On top of this, we bewail the lack of role models—heroes the Filipino youth can emulate.
How do we create the environment and uphold heroes who can nurture the skills of delayed gratification, and the virtue of “the last shall be first”?
Thirteen years ago, the late Don Enrique Zobel invited me to lunch. He wanted me to form a team that would produce new multimedia materials on our Philippine heroes. He wanted to tell the stories of real-life heroes to the youth in a way that would engage and inspire them.
This was prompted by a conversation he had with a 10-year-old boy in Calatagan. He asked the boy what he wanted to become when he grows up. The lad was quick to reply that he wanted to become a mayor. When asked why, the boy said mayors had so much money.
This disturbed Don Enrique very much, but prompted him to be proactive. Even in his later years he wanted to help build our youth—the hope of our nation, as Rizal saw them—by retelling the stories of heroes who sacrificed for the nation.
Unfortunately, Don Enrique passed away before we could start the project, but this story of his will always inspire me—and, I hope, some of you—to work toward upholding heroes and teaching the youth that good guys win in the end, and delayed gratification can lead to success—a life of meaning, service and mission.
Their victory is in the freedom they gained from tyranny, fear of discomfort or of death, winning our own political freedom in the process.
Across cultures, races and eras, Christ has inspired heroic lives, from martyrs to simple unsung heroes who work for justice, peace and love in the name of Christ. He is the epitome of “the last shall be first,” humbling himself to the level of a slave, and submitting himself to death on the cross which becomes his and our “narrow door” that opens for us the greatest freedoms: from sin and from death.
Today we celebrate the 33rd death anniversary of Ninoy Aquino. I remember that day. It was my first year in the Jesuit novitiate, and we had just ended the Mass for visiting Sunday when we received the news of the heinous assassination.
He is a true hero because his death gave millions of Filipinos freedom from fear and tyranny. His journey of conversion from being the consummate politician to one who surrendered himself to Christ found its synthesis in his death and its meaning, which he himself prophesied: The Filipino is worth dying for.
His death did lead us to Edsa, and today we honor him by placing him and his story within the horizon of our country’s journey to nationhood, replete with hero-companions along the way. The following excerpt from the prologue of O.D. Corpuz’s “Roots of the Filipino Nation” is an apt description of this horizon, the larger narrative of Filipino heroism.
“The story of the Revolution is in the account of the evocation of love for the motherland: the idealism of the ilustrados in Europe and the patriotism of the Filipinos who stayed home; the unity of the Katipunan fighting men and their leaderships who, in their words, ‘placed their lives in danger a thousand times’ in order that the Filipinos ‘should be the ones to govern the sons of this land.’ A more heroic age has not been seen in our history, for this surely was the watershed of Filipino nationalism.”
Let this and this alone be our standard for heroism—those who in their lifetime were “the last” and, in their heroic sacrifice for God and country, they merit a heroic death that places them “first.”
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