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Deal Hudson on Immediate Gratification and Mediated Gratification

By Deal W. Hudson
February 4th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Throughout the history of theology and spirituality, the final destination of the human journey has been described as a vision. In spite of the fact that our spiritual bodies will "see" in an entirely different way -- a safe assumption -- the metaphor of vision, as far as I know, has never been questioned as inaccurate or inappropriate. For example, has anyone argued for a beatific touch, sound, smell, or taste? The need for the moral virtues to habituate our passions is obvious, but the role of beauty in channeling the innate desire for gratification is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - My reader will be familiar with what is called immediate gratification -- perhaps too much so, perhaps too little -- but the reader may be puzzled by what I've termed mediated gratification. There's no need to scratch your head, I'm only giving a name to the kind of gratification that we, especially as parents, find morally and socially acceptable.

"Our Jack just doesn't know how to wait for things; he wants everything right now!" "Well, darling, Jill is even worse -- spending all her time gazing at her iPhone and ignoring everyone and everything!"  This kind of dialogue could go on for pages, encompassing all that we do in pursuit of pleasure, contentment, and joy.

I hope the reader does not associate the desire for immediate, or instant, gratification with the fallen part of human nature; it's grounded in our natural desire for the vision of God, the immediacy of being "face to face" with the source of our existence, with the Love that brought us into being.

Throughout the history of theology and spirituality, the final destination of the human journey has been described as a vision. In spite of the fact that our spiritual bodies will "see" in an entirely different way -- a safe assumption -- the metaphor of vision, as far as I know, has never been questioned as inaccurate or inappropriate. For example, has anyone argued for a beatific touch, sound, smell, or taste? (I recall a prominent Canadian Thomist who, opposing Descartes, proposed, "I touch, therefore, I am," but I don't believe he analogized that into eternity.)

So, when Jack and Jill bathe in the immediacy of whatever delights them, it's a natural urge that cannot be extinguished -- it can only be channeled, and that is where our sense of morality and beauty come in. "Why beauty?" you ask. The need for the moral virtues to habituate our passions is obvious, but the role of beauty in channeling the innate desire for gratification is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

Let me put it this way: What parents are always trying to teach their children is how to work towards a goal, how to wait for what they desire, how the greatest joys are those you wait for and work for. In other words, parents are struggling against time, the eagerness of the now versus the impatience towards the later. This is where choices about beauty, nay, tastes in beauty come in: Some works of art, such as those we call kitsch, offer immediate pleasure, while other works of art demand more of us, our attention, our intelligence, our time, our patience.

What better lesson in overcoming the need for immediate gratification than reading, say, a 500 page novel? Or listening to an hour-long Mahler symphony? Or a late Beethoven piano sonata? Or watching The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? Or standing before a Rembrandt more than a few seconds while visiting a museum? How about reading Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, over 1000 pages long? These offer us training in mediated gratification.

But I've made too much of sheer length, the deeper question is the willingness to take on difficulty in your taste for beauty. Difficulty can take many forms, density of language, complexity of narrative, unfamiliarity of style or idiom, experimental use of form, all of these challenge our ability to maintain attention and tempt us to move along to something easier. Avoid the challenge of difficulty and you remain, in spite of what you tell your children, bound to the charms of immediate gratification.

What's interesting about the "religious despisers of beauty" I have spoken of before is that the text they most revere -- Holy Scripture -- is very difficult to read, to comprehend, or experience its beauty.  What they accept about Scripture, that it takes reading and rereading, a lifetime of reading to get beyond its surface, is true of the greatest works of art. Part of their greatness is in their depth, what is required of us to see into their dark recesses. "

"Ah, but works of art are not the Word of God," you say. My reply is simply, "Yes, you are right, but have you really faced the difficulties of reading Scripture? If you have, then why not use those skills on other reading -- on films, music, painting, and all you encounter in the culture? But the likelihood is that very few religious despisers have delved deeply into the Scriptures and are content with what is spoon fed to them in the practice of their faith. To have experienced the richness of any difficult, demanding book is to know what is required by any cultural artifact worth our time.  And it is to understand why mediated gratification is the true foretaste of the Vision to come.

Summary

1. The desire for immediate gratification stems from the natural desire in all persons for the Vision of God in eternity.

2. Parents are constantly trying to teach children to postpone gratification, mediated by work, study, and saving.

3. The beautiful provides an excellent training ground for mediated immediacy, especially when works of art possess a level of difficulty requiring us to think harder, look closer, and take more time.

Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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