Sometimes in our discernment, there is no clear way forward. We know that we cannot stay as we have been, and yet we are unclear as to how to proceed. We just know that something inside us has changed and our current circumstances feel constraining or like they’re twisting us into something we don’t want to be; they feel intolerable.
At least in moments.
We want out. We want to do something different.
But Way does not seem to open.
We have begun the discernment process, we have the unsettled feeling that can lead to wise decision making. We know that where we are is not right.
“The unhatched chick
Does not know how or even what it is to fly.
She does not have vision or know what it is to see
The world from above.
She does not even know what it is to have
Feathers, dry, soft, carrying her aloft on wide wings.
She has only two things:
And the clear knowledge that where she is
Is too small for her.”
David Whyte says something similar in his poem, “Sweet Darkness” when he writes, “The world was made to be free in. / Give up all the worlds / except the one to which you belong. / Sometimes it takes darkness and / the sweet confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”
But how do we give up the world when we don’t know where to go next?
Ignatian disciplines suggest, “Don’t just do something; stay there,” or, if you prefer, “stand there.” That is to say, the Ignatian way of thinking about discernment suggests that it is not enough to escape where we are. We have to have some sense of moving forward. Not simply away, but toward.
It may be toward freedom.
It may be toward opening our wings.
It may be toward a new understanding of ourselves that is only just growing within us.
But in general, it should not simply be “away.” Let me be clear: I am not arguing that anyone must or even should stay in abusive situations. But even then, it is important to have a safer place to go. One cannot merely take oneself and one’s children into the snow, at least under most circumstances, no?
In general, if Way seems not to have opened, if we have not yet realized that there are possibilities outside the shell, then we don’t yet need our one tooth.
In general, if we can’t imagine that there’s something on the other side of the shell, then we’re not ready to start. We don’t have that inkling, that inchoate knowing that there is More, Deeper, Truer on the other side of where we are now.
When we know that there’s More, then we start scratching. Then we start pushing. Then we start pecking and stretching. Then we give up the worlds we have been trying to inhabit and we move towards the world that is ours. The one world, as Whyte says, to which we belong.
I think that too often, we try to belong to many worlds, many ways, many faces, many personae at once.
To what world do I belong?
Who am I?
What am I built to do?
These are central questions of discernment. How can we live into the Good Life, as ancient philosophers would say? How can we be virtuous people—according to the virtues our hearts and minds demand?
Love is the central virtue of my life, followed closely by four that proceed from it: Authenticity, Integrity, Compassion, and Wisdom. They are what I strive for, and figuring out what I’m doing and whether it’s the right thing is often helped by its being held up against those virtues. Is what I’m doing in keeping with my heart’s demands for who I want to be.
After all, who we are can be expressed in any circumstance. (See Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, about the camps of the Second World War. Aie, even mentioning them makes me think of the concentration camps at the US southern border.)
What are the central virtues that you hope to guide your life?
What are the virtues that are not guiding you, but that you wish for?
These questions are worth writing about. And they will help you get to What’s Next.
Don’t just do something, stay there.
Sometimes it doesn’t take all this. Sometimes Way opens and we are given amazing gifts by the Source of Life that we can hardly believe. Synchronicity opens up and the next step ahead is just what we need.
Maybe the next place is only a waystation, a jumping-off point, and that’s okay. But resist, my friends, resist the impulse only to move away from what you don’t or what feels distasteful.
Resist simple escape.
You don’t have to know what to do next. But the truth of “wherever you go, there you are,” is indeed inescapable. You bring yourself and all your questions, all your concerns, all your worries with you no matter where you go.
“Give up all the other worlds,” says David Whyte. What do you have to give up in order to find the Way? What are the sacrifices we are called upon to make?
I think of the time I precipitously quit a job because I was uncomfortable and afraid of being fired. In quitting my job, I dropped our household income by a third, I didn’t get unemployment or severance, and I injured our financial life for years afterward.
I had no going toward, just the compulsion I found impossible to resist at that time, to get OUT.
Eventually, I found my way stumbling through, and happily, my wife didn’t divorce me. I was younger than I am now, but still a grown-ass adult. And wouldn’t it have been nice if I had recognized the opportunity for discernment, instead of just jumping out of the fear that was governing my actions?
And that is the lesson, isn’t it?
Let us not be governed only by fear, but rather by possibility. By openness to the world. As Mary Oliver says, “The world offers itself to your imagination, / Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, / Announcing your place in the family of things.”
Where are you today in the family of things? Where would you like to be? Do you need to wait and listen, pray to perceive the next step? Or is it time to use that one tooth because you know your world has become too small for you and the possibilities outside are endless?
So much love –