I team teach a senior seminar about human nature. We spend a lot of time on philosophy, much of it centered on what constitutes a meaningful life. We take those ancient Greeks at their word that the end we seek is happiness. But how do we get there?
That’s where discernment comes in. We make choices all the time: “Why, yes, I will have another beer. Nachos too? Absolutely.” Small choices can sometimes add up and lead to the necessity to make bigger decisions: “Wonder if I should make some lifestyle changes so I can drop those 20 lbs. I’ve inexplicably gained this year?”
But most of our daily choices don’t call for discernment. It’s for the really big stuff, questions about the right path to take in life and the right thing to do when faced with perplexing questions.
I once asked a Jesuit Provincial for advice about whether or not I should wade into a particularly vexing question. “Engage the gray,” he told me. The gray is any question that is layered with competing principles, sound arguments on both sides and laden with emotion. Avoid-and-hope-it-goes-away is one way to deal with the gray, but is, of course, the wrong way. Better instead to address it through a process of discernment.
The first step in discernment is always reflection, taking the time to sit with the question. Frame it around freedom. What are the factors that are limiting my freedom to make the right decision? Maybe those limitations come from within. I may have fallen into an unhealthy, disordered attachment that is carrying more influence than it should. I, for example, am a driven person, a good thing when in balance, but not so good when taken too far. That desire to get things done can overwhelm other desires that should be in play.
It’s also important to recognize the limitations from without - relationships that should be considered and pressures to shape the decision one way or another. The intentions of those trying to exert influence should be weighed in, since their interests may be more self-serving than in the service of the common good.
While reflecting upon these factors it is also important to honestly admit to myself what I am afraid of. I could be fearful, for example, of hurting someone I am close to or having to make a sacrifice I don’t want to make. Fear diminishes discernment. Acknowledging fear may not eliminate it, but will reduce its impact.
Overcoming fear helps move us to the freedom of elevating the desire to do the right thing above the desire to do other things. And that desire to do right generally leads to actually doing it. Sounds simple, but it’s not. That other stuff that gets in the way is often very attractive stuff.
Some years ago I was faced with a decision about what to do about the most famous graduate of our school, Amanda Knox. Amanda had been charged with the murder of her roommate in Perugia, Italy and was being held in jail awaiting trial. Amanda was innocent but at the time this wasn’t known. Reporters from around the world were covering the case and it became a media sensation. Camps of passionate opinion holders were quickly formed.
As I pondered what would be the right thing to do, a fearful voice inside me insisted that doing nothing would be a really good idea. This approach would have been in keeping with a maxim from A Man for All Seasons that often makes sense to me, “Whatever may be accomplished by smiling, you may rely upon me to do.”
But conversations with more courageous people, a lot of prayer and some stirrings within eventually led me to the conclusion that we should support Amanda. So we did - with letters, care packages and fundraisers for her family’s legal defense fund. Then came the firestorm: negative media, hateful emails, withdrawn financial support for the school and attacks by some influential people.
Strangely, though, after the decision had been made I became indifferent to all those things. The decision just felt right, then as now, and a kind of peace settled within me. Before the decision, while weighed down by unhealthy attachments to popularity and self-preservation, the thought of such negativity and conflict filled me with anxiety. Discernment, though, requires seeing with clear eyes, detached from desires that blur the distinction between the right thing to do and the expedient one. “The truth will set you free,” it’s been said. That same freedom comes from acting upon the desire to do the right thing, and with that freedom comes peace.
These steps in discernment also apply to questions about one’s direction in life – college or no college, which college, this job or that, marriage and if so to whom, maybe kids but how many. But this kind of question is more personal, so more is needed. That something more is gratitude, a profound appreciation for the gifts both within and around us. From these gifts, and our appreciation for them, we see possibilities, especially the possibility of happiness.
Happiness is not just something I desire for myself. It is also something God desires for me. That’s what is meant by finding and following God’s will - the center of discernment when making big decisions about life. Sometimes this desire to follow God’s will is mischaracterized as a kind of interior enslavement, a negated freedom found in a sacrificed life. Not so. Finding and doing what God desires for us is actually a journey into freedom and fullness of life because who I am can’t be distinguished from the person God is calling me to be.
I keep a resignation letter from a teacher near me at my desk. I keep it there because it reminds me of what good discernment feels like: “This school is a fantastic place; yet, I am constantly confronted by what James Martin, SJ calls ‘[being] who you is.’ When I reflect on who I am, it is in living and working with the poor in Latin America that I truly come alive. That is where my heart’s deepest desire is met and it brings out the best in me, so I must go!”
That simple letter captures it all, including that last line that points to the final step in good discernment: “so I must go!” Hands follow the heart. Living the fruit of good discernment does not make for easy living, but it does make for right living. Ultimately, we find that what we want for ourselves - and what God wants for us - is the same thing: Happiness.