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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

What is discernment?

In my previous column, I told the story of my discernment journey. Some of you may have wondered, “What does it mean to discern?”

In general, discernment refers to an intentional decision-making process. For undergraduate students, like many of us, that could involve deciding a course of study, choosing a career path or selecting extracurricular activities.

Some decisions may be simple. You have a clear and distinct gut feeling, and you know what to do. Other decisions may be more complicated. You feel torn between two or more options, and you have no idea what to do. Either way, take the time to reflect and properly decide, so that you can look back and say, “I did my best to make a good choice with the information I had.”

How, then, should we go about making these crucial, life-altering decisions? When we face a fork in the road, how do we choose which path to take?

The way I see it, the first step toward making a good decision is acknowledging the fear. We cannot hide it, nor should we suppress it. We cannot ignore uncertainty. Instead, accept it. Acknowledge the doubt. Walk through, not around, the cloud of confusion that shrouds the future.

Even though this unknowingness will be uncomfortable (especially for those of us who wish to know everything and have a steady life plan), if we can learn to face this discomfort of uncertainty, then we open ourselves up to genuine personal growth. Only when we admit that we do not know can we learn something truly valuable.

Let me explain further what the discernment process looks like. As I said, a first essential step is acknowledging uncertainty, because the future is often distant and unknown. There are so many possibilities, and we can only choose one. We cannot study all the disciplines. Nor can we work in all the fields. We are faced with, therefore, both the fear of unknowing and the pressure of making a good choice!

In the face of uncertainty and pressure, we explore. Externally we explore what the world has in store for us, and internally we explore the dimensions of our own personalities. External exploration may involve going to a career fair, trying new courses or attending extracurricular activities. As we do this, we pay attention to the inner stirrings of our souls, evaluating our responses to new experiences. Did I enjoy that intro course? Did I feel a sense of joy while working that summer internship? If so, carry on. If not, maybe try something else.

While we explore and evaluate the outer and the inner world, we seek to identify our deepest desires and locate where they intersect with humanity's greatest needs.

After some time, we arrive at a decision with a certain degree of clarity. We may never feel fully confident, but we can rest assured that we took the time to properly decide.

Once we make a decision and commit to that choice, we allow ourselves to grow and develop in that new environment. That is, until we reach the next fork in the road. And so the process continues, exploring and deciding, confusion and clarity, a continuous cycle of reflection and action.

When we arrive at the next inflection point, however, we are no longer the same persons as we were before. We have grown. We have come to recognize our desires and our callings.

Moreover, we have refined the skill of discernment. We have learned how to make wise decisions in accordance with our values.

In this process we discover a calling, a guiding principle to lead us down the path of life. This light pierces through clouds of darkness and guides us toward the greatest good.

Discernment, therefore, is a dynamic, continuous and progressive process of exploring, deciding and becoming, through which one develops the skills necessary to make decisions in greater harmony with principles of goodness, beauty and justice.

In theory, that may sound great. In reality, however, the discernment process may not feel so smooth. There may be times of confusion. As I write, I am in one of those times. It is hard, and I pray for vision and clarity.

Then there will be times when a decision results in peace, joy, and consolation. We feel free. That’s the goal, after all.

Let me now offer two pieces of advice. Again, I am still discerning. I do not have it all figured out. Still, these are two things I have found to be helpful. 

First, take it day by day. Do not allow worries of the future to tarnish the present moment. Pay attention. Reflect. Contemplate on your bed at night.

Second, talk it out. Talk with friends, parents, professors, rectors, advisors, mentors — anyone and everyone. Allow these conversations to speak to you.

So, when you are in the process of discerning, you may experience fear of the unknown and pressure of choosing correctly. Have no fear! Do not worry! Live day-to-day, paying attention to the stirrings of your soul as you experience new things. And talk it out, reflecting on your options with valued mentors. Then you can say, “I did a good job.”

Joey Jegier is a senior at Notre Dame studying philosophy, ESS and German. He enjoys coffee, conversation and taking time to be still (when possible). Areas of interests include mysticism, education and discernment. Joey loves the city of South Bend and regularly visits the farmers market, his only source of milk and eggs. He would love to chat about anything and can be reached at jjegier2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.