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How discernment can change your life

Who am I? How can I discover my real self? How can I become the person I want to be? These are big questions, and it takes a lot of chutzpah to answer them. But chutzpah is precisely what Saint Ignatius of Loyola developed as a result of – daydreaming. Yes, daydreaming! Who said daydreaming was a waste of time!

It was actually the devastating impact of a cannonball that reduced Ignatius of Loyola from dashing dreams to daydreams. At the beginning of 1521 Ignatius was a gallant knight in armour, ambitious for glory and power. But in May of the same year he was hit by a cannonball that shattered his leg – and his dreams. Despite one agonizing operation after another, Ignatius still had to spend nine months in bed to regain movement and flexibility in his wounded leg. During these long and seemingly interminable months, he asked for books on chivalry to pass the time. But his sister-in-law had other ideas: she gave him books on the lives of the saints and the life of Jesus.

Although he was no longer a functioning soldier, a real battle developed inside Ignatius. It was a battle between two different selves, two different “Ignatiuses”, and they were truly at loggerheads. One Ignatius was mesmerized by Jesus and the saints, by their amazing freedom from power and prestige, from public opinion and possessions. But the other Ignatius stubbornly refused to give up the dream of becoming a valiant knight. Again and again Ignatius saw himself as a strong and virile hero, the knight in shining armour who would win the lady of his hopes come what may.

It was only after a period of time that Ignatius began to realize that these two conflicting dreams left him in two distinct frames of mind. The prospect of being the tough man with a magnanimous soul sent a thrill rushing through his heart. But crucially, the thrill did not last. It wore off more quickly than he cared to believe. And all that remained was a disheartening emptiness. However, things were different when his inner gaze turned to Jesus and the saints. The joy and attraction he felt inside did not rush away; they stayed. Slowly it dawned upon him that the desires that kindled the lasting fire of joy inside were the very desires that were drawing him toward God, while the desires that left him dissatisfied were pulling him away from everything that spoke of God.

In our own ways, we all experience two selves inside. There is the surface self that is focused on having things (for Ignatius it was all about having power, wealth, and a noble wife), accomplishing things (becoming the most valiant and successful knight ever), and getting approval from outside (being respected and even venerated by his peers). But this false self is never secure: at any moment fame, fortune and the accolade of fans can fade away. The false self is out of touch with our inner depths, because it has become a master of masks and disguises, always ready to put on a face to hide its fears and neediness.

Many of us experience a constant pendulum swing from one self to another. In the course of a single day we can move from generosity (stopping to talk with a homeless man on the street and giving him spare change) to complete self-absorption (I’m surfing on my phone and don’t disturb me!) The false self promises much and delivers next to nothing: after the inevitable thrill, we’re left dissatisfied. The true self imparts a joy that stays, a sense of being at home with ourselves and the world. The false self drags us back into the past of unhealthy habits; the true self draws us forward toward a fuller life.

If you want to live in tune with who you really are, here’s a vital rule to live by: never make big decisions when you’re in a bad space. When you’re in a bad space, the world looks worse than it is, just like when you’re wearing sunglasses everything appears darker than it truly is. Here’s a story to make this vital point as clear as possible (names, places and certain details have been changed, but the gist of the story is true).

One morning a Jesuit priest gave a talk to some college students about how to make decisions. He kept returning to the point I just mentioned: don’t make big decisions when you’re in a bad zone. He added that it’s precisely at trying moments like this that we are tempted to make major decisions, because we think they are the very things that will get us out of this bad space. But often these decisions boomerang on us, and make things even worse. Several days later one of the students came back to see him. Her name was Sarah. She said, “Father, what you said is so true, it really works”. He said, “What works?” “That rule you gave us about making big decisions”, Sarah replied. He was intrigued: “Tell me more”. So Sarah told him about her friend Aoife who was on the point of dropping out of university.

“It was last Friday. I arrived at our flat and Aoife was packing her things. Not just a few clothes as she usually did when she was going home for the weekend. No, this time it was a real clear-out: everything was going into suitcases and travel bags. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her. She said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of college.’ That wasn’t like Aoife. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, she’s a star student, she’s a great athlete, and she has a ton of friends. Why was she suddenly packing it all in? It just didn’t make any sense. I said, ‘Aoife, you can’t just walk out like this; you owe me an explanation.’ She had this really sad expression in her face. She said, ‘I wanted to be a doctor, but this year of pre-med is crazy: I’m two months into it and I’ve just failed my first set of exams. This is new territory for me: I’ve never even got a B in an exam before, never mind failing. And then I texted my boyfriend to meet him for coffee, I figured he might give me some support, and two minutes later he texts me back telling me he’s just met someone new. Can you believe it? He hasn’t even got the guts and the decency to tell me face to face. He calls it all off with a line of stupid text. So, there you have it. In the space of an hour I fail my exams and my boyfriend fails me. That’s why I’m going.’”

Sarah immediately thought of the rule about big decisions. She pleaded with Aoife: “Please don’t do this now, not when you’re so upset.” Aoife replied: “Well, what do you want me to do: wait around until I’m even more upset?” Sarah replied, “Listen, come down with me to Wexford for the weekend. We’ll book into a B & B. I’ll just meet you for breakfast and in the evenings. Otherwise, take time out, walk along the beach, look at the waves, and relax. We’ll drive back up to Dublin on Sunday evening. And then if you still feel the same way you do now, I’ll help you carry all those bags out the door on Monday morning.”

Aoife agreed. On Sunday evening as they drove along the M11, Aoife said, “Thanks so much for the weekend. You know, it was while I was looking out to sea this afternoon that it suddenly hit me: I don’t want to be a doctor at all. It was my mother who was pushing me to do it. She has been pushing me so much and for so long that I began to believe that I wanted it too. But you know, I don’t want it all. It’s stories and novels that have always fascinated me. I’m going to give up medicine. I’m going to switch to English literature.” She stopped for a moment to clear her throat. “And as for that boyfriend, although my head told me that he ticked all the right boxes, my heart has been telling me for the last two months to run away from him, but I never stopped long enough to listen to it. I’m better off without him.” As Sarah parked the car, Aoife gave her a big smile and said, “I’m staying at UCD.”

Sarah took the key from the ignition and put on the handbrake. Although a few drops of rain were tapping on the windscreen from outside, inside the car a sense of peace and stillness reigned. Sarah felt so happy that she held Aoife in a long embrace. The tears rolled down their faces. And as Sarah finished telling this story to the Jesuit priest, she said, “That rule about not making a big decision from a bad space is so important. If Aoife had left college last Friday, her whole life would have collapsed around her.”

Sarah saved Aoife from a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. Unfortunately there are too many people who make too many decisions from an unhelpful place inside themselves. They walk out of marriages because they’re feeling down. They turn to someone new just to fill the gnawing dissatisfaction they feel inside. They make major life changes when they are full of anxiety and in no proper state of mind to do so.

So, please follow this basic wisdom in your life too. When you feel out of tune with yourself and others and God, you’ll also find that you’re blown this way and that by moods and feelings, and they’ll often urge you to make a big decision. But if you’re feeling that uneasy with life and with yourself, it’s the worst time to make a big decision. Don’t get hijacked by your surface self! Wait! Be patient! And in the meantime, while you’re waiting and exercising your patience, share your pain with someone you trust, turn to friends for support, and ask God to help and heal you – you’ll be glad you did.

The photo shows Fr Tom Casey saying Mass in the Chapel of the Conversion (the Conversion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola), in Loyola, Spain.