"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Discipline, Capitalism and Cookie Jars

It doesn’t take a behavioral psychologist to understand the significance of a cookie jar to a child. Out there. On the counter. In plain sight and just within reach. The jar represents much more than a vessel of baked goods. The cookie jar is a test of moral and mental discipline. In addition to its confectioneries, the cookie jar carries certain universal laws, particular to no certain nation, tribe, or tongue: cookies come after finishing dinner; cookies come only when mom says it’s okay to eat them; and cookies go best with a glass of milk. One quickly learns, conditioned by trial and error, that the most amount of cookies are received when one follows the rules. In other words, in such a system, temporary discipline leads to extended gratification. Once we become adults and proud owners of our own polished cookie jars, we live relatively on our own terms. A dilemma similar to the one faced in childhood, however, still lies before us. To what extent do we make leisure and rest, the cookies of adult life, part of our diet? A life lived without cookies is no life at all. Still, too many makes life move with a lethargic gait. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, contributes his own thoughts to the discussion. “Self-command,” he writes, “is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal luster.” Some have taken this to mean that capitalism should be tempered with a sort of asceticism. While it is true that success (not to mention happiness!) relies upon a disciplined ethic, it is a gross misapplication of Smith’s thesis to think that the capitalist must dutifully work himself to death. In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes the running champion Alberto Salazar who defined his incredible career by running through immense pain and exhaustion until his body completely broke down. Gladwell points out that “Salazar could have had a longer career had he pushed himself less… A moderate Salazar might have run happily and successfully into his thirties… But what kind of career would that have been?” Sounds like it may have been a happy and successful one. While I share Gladwell’s awe and admiration of an athlete who can literally run himself to death, I disagree with his premise fundamentally. We cannot sprint through life, to the point of absolute exhaustion, for the simple sake of a single achievement. Life has more facets that that. We are called to succeed at more than our professional occupation. Capitalists are often described as workaholics—men and women so focused on making a few extra bucks that they eschew other elements of their life such as family, friendships and hobbies. While this may be true of some, it is hardly a fair generalization. Go to the ballpark on any given day of the week and you will undoubtedly be surrounded by thousands of fellow capitalists who are cheering just as loudly as their public service counterparts—hot dog and beer in hand. Part of contributing to the good of society is taking part in activities beyond the workplace and indulging in associations of neighbors, friends and family. If there existed an American Catechism I doubt that you would find in its doctrine that a trim waistline is the chief purpose of man. An idol of productivity can decay a life as easily as gorging on sweets. Cookies have a place; leisure and rest are part of our weekly responsibilities. I say “responsibilities” because we are given charge of our own well-being, development and potential. We are held accountable to our decisions: our choices of indulgence or abstinence. Such verdicts should be made in balance. We cannot hold ourselves back from every new found joy just as we cannot indulge ourselves in every whim. As my peers and I seriously enter the work force for the first time, it is my hope that we can do so with a nuanced, healthy understanding of both work and leisure. One thing is sure: Our levels of productivity and individual happiness are our own responsibility, but the effect of our decisions go beyond ourselves. Can we know when to open the cookie jar and when to keep it closed?