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I look back to the many years I spent as a smoker. And I wonder how I could have been so stupid. After all, for most of the time I was well aware of the medical dangers. But that didn’t stop me because the cigarette or pipe were there, and immediately offering the pleasure of a quick drag. I even came to understand how the pleasure centres of the brain reacted to the addiction. And punished me for failing to smoke.
I have been thinking about this again because the newspapers have carried so many stories on this new facility for those over age 55 to take their pension pot early. It is, say its champions, only right that intelligent human beings should not be treated as incompetents; they should be able to choose. (There are, of course, cynics who says that the Tories are well aware that lumps of extra spending just at this stage will give an extra push to a growing economy.)
I had encountered something similar before – when, in my former career, I was concerned with marketing pensions. There were a surprising number of people who, even after understanding the need for a pension and the importance of setting it up early, simply elected to spend the money now rather than provide for retirement. I even met an Evangelical who assured me that the Bible had condemned providing for the future –“Take no thought for the morrow. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” he quoted to me. And he wasn’t joking.
So I fear that this new facility is not being offered to sane, balanced, rational people. It is being offered to human beings. And that is a different animal.
A picture of a seesaw comes into my mind. On one end is a large man, on the other is a child. Yet the seesaw balances. Of course it does, because the child sits on the long end and the man sits on the short. It’s the effect of leverage. “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” said Archimedes.
Human nature is like that: the more immediate the reward the greater its desirability. So a puff on a fag this very minute attracts me more than good health in forty years time.
We must assume that this, apparently irrational, characteristic is the result of evolution. There must be some benefit which contributes to survival. My guess is this. We are prompted to take action immediately because, if we fail to do so, that action may never be taken. As a result of this omission, we may be destroyed before we have a chance to enjoy the future benefit. Unfortunately, the instincts which emerge from evolution are not discriminating. What may have been a good survival strategy when lives were nasty, brutish and short, may no longer be so useful in more settled times.
It is only too easy to apply this to the Christian life. Sin is immediate, and attractive. We are drawn, Aquinas tells us, to a good – or something which we perceive to be a species of good at the time. Of course, if we pause for a moment, we realise that it will be an the expense of an incomparably greater good. But unfortunately this is somewhat indeterminate, and will not be available to us for many years. The sin is there – to hand.
We may even see a version of this ‘seesaw’ instinct in Christ. His first thought is to ask his Father to take away the ‘chalice’ of his Passion. But this is only an immediate good. Through invoking his Father’s will, he chooses to accept the long term benefit of redemption by suffering and death.
In day to day matters we may well be helped by remembering that the ‘seesaw’ instinct is just that – an instinct. The choice between immediate action and future consequences must be rational and not instinctive. In more serious issues, we must try to discern the will of the Father, and be ready to follow that.