The piercing dark blue of the skies at dawn, such depth of colour.
The Great Dane is deeply affectionate and as winter draws closer with bright chilly winds and icy dawns, he likes to lean and burrow and share rugs, stand a little closer to the stove, occupy recently vacated seats and get himself some human warmth and love. The sight of my sweater without me in it sends him into a frenzy of chew-some-now, eet-sum-more adoration. My smaller dogs are like cats and happy to curl up at a distance under their woollen rugs and blankets, but the big dog wants proximity, reciprocity and all those good things that get in the way of making supper or reading a book. He likes to carry his bedding around the house.
He is also fond of muddy gardens and pools of unmuddied water and deep slushy ditches. If allowed, he would drag his bedding outdoors and enjoy the best of both worlds, comfort and muddiness. He has a new jazzy orange and yellow woven collar and I love watching him run around splashing and jumping. We bought the collar for him a year ago and he is finally thick-necked enough to wear it.
Standing at the stove this morning heating oatmeal and nudging the dog away with one foot, I found myself thinking about discernment.
Years ago, as a Catholic convert I belonged to an Ignatian group that focused on the principles of discernment, how to make better choices and reach good decisions. This was a revelation to me because I acted on impulse or avoidance, chose not to do things that had bad associations for me. My mother had been afraid of dentists and I was the same, so seeing a dentist was a very, very last resort. This meant that visits to the dentist were always stressful and angsty, punctuated with questions from the dentist as to why I hadn’t come in before now? That kind of offputting encounter. My family as a rule believed that bank managers were nasty small-minded men with a miser complex, so I expected the worst if summoned to speak with a bank manager. Because I had been poor at mental arithmetic at school, although I later went on to study physics, I had no faith in my ability to work out a bank statement. Bank statements went unopened into the bottom drawer of a kitchen cupboard, under piles of old newspapers. What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve. Not a motto I would recommend anyone live by.
This oscillating between idealistic optimism and avoidance characterised most of my decisionmaking habits.If I had never tried anything before, I had no bad memories of it, so this made me feel excited and eager to launch myself into new adventures. Then too, I was determined not to live the kind of life my mother had suffered, so I tended to leave relationships early in case I found myself trapped. I pre-empted endings because I did not want to hang on in there and find myself rejected.
So when I sat down in a convent garden with my wrapped tomato sandwiches, an unopened New Jerusalem Bible and an invitation to reflect on how I went about making decisions, it was revelatory. I had never consciously processed my own decisions before.
The word ‘discernment’ is interesting. From the Greek, diakrinō means to judge in truthful ways; Latin, cernere means to winnow (with dis, to divide); The idea is to select, discriminate and pare down possibilities, choosing as we go. The goal is not to make a brilliant, perfect, irreproachable choice or decision, it is just to move a little closer to the truth. Because the truth, painful or uncomfortable or challenging as it may be, is always ultimately liberating.
We may choose a more risky or unknown path, we may stay with what makes sense. We may follow a random or well-founded intuition. We have to work with the information at our finger tips, we have to inform ourselves as well as possible. And then we have to trust and move forward.
And one other understanding of discernment emerged all those years ago and one which helped me a great deal when I came to do the Steps. Discernment is not just a personal, individual or solitary process, it is communal and involves others. Because all our choices impact on our relationships and so each decision made is made in truth and love. We involve skilled helpers in the discernment, teachers, counsellors, physicians, mentors. We build relationship with those who help us towards wiser lifegiving decisions. We look at how our choices will affect those we love, our family, our students, our friends and our community.
And this fallible process of discernment is a template for emotional and spiritual growth. It involves risk, trust and courage. Staying open to the possibility of grace. At the end of that long-ago Ignatian retreat, I plucked up my courage and asked one of the women giving the retreat if she thought I needed therapy. It had occurred to me that my decisions were not only reactive and impulsive, but driven cruelly and compulsively by an unresolved past, by a fear too deep to name.
Going to therapy was the beginning perhaps of the long meandering road that brought me into sober community. It was not a perfect decision and I was probably not ready for therapy. But it was the first time I took full responsibility for a choice, the first time I let others in to help me make a choice.