I heard about an interesting psychological study a few weeks ago. It found that people who talk about their future plans received as much satisfaction as those who actually carried out their future plans. In other words, if I really want to write a novel, and I tell my friends, “I really want to write a novel,” then that triggers the same happiness portions in my brain as if I’d just successfully completed my opus. That makes it very hard to keep motivated to begin or continue the project, because the mind has already received its “reward” by happily envisioning that future.
The human brain is kind of wacky at times.
The conclusion the person speaking about the study reached is that — if possible — we should avoid discussing our plans with others until they’re far enough along that the project is almost certain to be complete. If that’s not possible, then we should ask those we talk to about it to hold us accountable: “I’m trying to write a novel. When you see me next week, if I haven’t written 20 pages, please call me out on it.”
All of these thoughts came to mind as I reflected upon today’s readings. Most strikingly, I realized how direct the connection is between inspiration and action today. This is most obvious in the Gospel selection from Matthew. It describes an encounter between Jesus and four fishermen. When he meets brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew, Jesus “said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately thereafter in the text, Jesus sees the brothers Zebedee and John. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.
Notice how direct the resolution of action is! It doesn’t say, “Jesus presented his case, and the brothers debated among themselves, consulted with their friends, made a list of pros and cons, drew up a five-year plan, and then decided to follow Jesus for the time being on a trial basis.” No, they heard Christ’s call, dropped what they were doing, and followed him.
That’s actually not dissimilar to my own entry into the faith. The gal who would become my wife told me about her faith and how it was important to her, I decided I’d check out this whole “church” thing, I went that next Sunday to Mass and never stopped going.
Today’s first reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans reenforces this connection. There is no “trial period” between confessing with your heart that Jesus is Lord and your salvation. It simply says, “you will be saved.” And Paul makes the connection explicit between that call and the need to spread the word: “But how can they call on [the Lord] in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?”
Reading this, you get a sense of the urgency, the need to act now in spreading the Word and bringing the good news to as many as you can. It doesn’t say, “If you get around to it, as your schedule permits, start spreading the Gospel as it’s convenient.” It implores its readers to act now! Because if you don’t do it, who will?
It’s easy to get caught up in the mental wrangling that turns thought into action. And our brains seem designed to treat discussion of action the same as actual action. (It might even be arguable that’s somehow the devil working to thwart our actions . . .)
But, looking back on my life, I realized that most of my successful undertakings — both secular and religious — have come from turning thought into action as soon as possible. I’ve signed up for parish ministries that seemed interesting with only a moment’s thought. I’ve volunteered immediately when the opportunity seemed present and well-suited. I’ve written and spoken to others – just a quick note or a kind sentence – when I thought it would do good, without deliberation.
During this Advent season, I’d encourage everyone to look for opportunities to “drop your nets” and get closer to Christ. Don’t dwell endlessly upon it. Don’t debate it extensively with family or friends. Just do it.