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The Limits of Willpower

June 22nd, 2023 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

One of our favorite stories to read with our kids at bedtime is a Frog and Toad story about when one of the friends made cookies and brought them to the other's house. They sit down, eat some cookies, keep eating cookies, and soon look at each other, realizing they need to stop. But they can't.

So one character says "Let us eat one last cookie. And then we will stop." They then proceed to keep eating. Then one of them suggests that they need willpower to help them stop. But they both know that's a non-starter.

So one character puts the cookies in a box and closes it. The other says, "But we can open the box." So then the other decides to tie some string around the box. Then: "But we can cut the string and open the box." So then they decide to climb on a ladder and put the box on a high shelf. You know where this is going: "But we can climb the ladder, take the box down from the shelf, cut the string, and open the box."

Finally, they decide to take the box outside, open it, and call the birds to come eat them.

"Oh. Now we have no more cookies to eat. Not even one."

"Yes, but we have lots and lots of willpower."

Our internal resolve to do a thing is limited. Our attention is limited. Our willpower is limited. This has always been true, of course. Lobel wrote his stories long before the advent of high-speed internet, smartphones, and streaming video. But in an era of always-on computers with access to a virtual infinity of information, our own paltry resources of internal resistance and focus feel meager indeed. What's worse, there is ample reason to think that these new technologies, already far too powerful for our internal resolve, are actually weakening that resolve.

It is for this reason that any social order premised on choice maximization as the chief good and strongly opposed to trying to "stack the deck" as it were in favor of some choices and against others is doomed from the start.

Here in Lincoln, we now have state-sanctioned tools to purchase lottery tickets online. We also have a casino now, as well as (very soon) sports betting at the casino. And these changes to my home place made me consider a question: What things do we make it easy to do as a city, as a country? What things do we make it hard to do?

The list of easy things is obvious: We make it very easy to buy lottery tickets and gamble on sports and veg out for hours in front of Netflix (or porn) and, increasingly, to buy and consume a variety of drugs, most prominently marijuana. In short, we make it very easy to do things that are bad for society, bad for common life, and bad for our personal finances.

Meanwhile: What are the things that we make it hard to do?

Well, it's very hard to afford a family because most jobs don't pay a living wage, because our healthcare system is hopelessly dysfunctional and exorbitantly expensive to access, and because we have no coherent system of providing paid family leave for new parents, amongst many other reasons.

It's also very hard for many people to have a healthy home life, due to reasons of workism and long commutes. It's very hard for many people to have a regular day of rest because their work schedules constantly change and, often, they work multiple jobs so they can get by. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of our young people are so miserable?

Here's the thing: When I make my case for Christendom and why Christian culture is actually a good and desirable thing, most of what I'm thinking about is stuff like the above: Accessing things that are extremely bad for you, like marijuana, gambling, and porn, should be harder than it is. Being able to get married, buy a house (or just afford good housing), and have children should be easier than it is. A great many of our problems, I think, exist because we've made a world in which it is desperately difficult to be good, far more difficult than it needs to be. When I envision a Christian society, the ideas near the forefront of my mind mostly have to do with protecting and preserving family life, promoting organized labor so that workers can command better wages and more easily build and form families, and taking some reasonable steps to limit access to some especially dangerous vices, such as gambling and porn, for starters.

My fight with those Christians who oppose Christendom is simply this: I think their attempts to simply keep ploughing ahead with proceduralist visions of common life in the aftermath of such rapid and radical technological upheaval is the equivalent of sending a skiff of paper into a hurricane, to borrow an image from one of our founding fathers.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).