“Discernment” is a big word that can mean many things. In the Catholic tradition, it often refers to finding one’s vocation to a state of life — whether that be to marriage, religious life, the priesthood, or single life. But before you toss it aside, “discernment” is a useful term in other ways, too. It also fits situations when we come upon a fork in the road and have to contemplate our direction and choose a path.
In fact, discernment isn’t truly synonymous with making a decision. We don’t “discern” whether to spend a Friday evening out with friends or not. Rather, discernment is a process — it’s an intentional way to discover the direction in which we feel called or led, whether that is pertaining to our vocation, career path, degree program, job opportunity, relationship, etc. Discernment is what we do when we contemplate big decisions in life.
Discernment looks different for everyone, because every person and every situation are different. But there are a few things to avoid when in a process of discernment to make that process go as smoothly as possible. Speaking from experience, watching out for these common mistakes will help you discern with more clarity of mind and peace of heart so you can truly find your direction or calling.
Some big decisions in life do require expediency — a supervisor may be waiting to hear back from you on a job offer, or you may need to choose a degree program by a particular deadline. Most often, though, you’ll have at least some time to spend in discernment.
Feeling rushed can cloud your vision, increase your stress, and cause you to choose something you may or may not have chosen if you’d had more time to weigh the pros and cons.
Big decisions take time, and the process of discernment takes time. Sorting through the particulars of a given choice and your deepest values isn’t easy — it takes reflection and conversation. If you have a deadline, intentionally create the space and time you need to fully understand the situation instead of making a judgment call on a whim or under undue pressure.
Going it alone
Finding our purpose in life, determining our calling, or making any big decision requires support and encouragement from those around us. It also requires counsel and mentorship from an objective third party. This could be a trusted priest, friend, or mentor — someone who wants to help you choose what is truly best for you rather than to sway your decision in one way or another.
For example, a parent who has always wanted you to become a doctor is probably not the best person to turn to for guidance on what degree field to pursue. They may be supportive, but they’ll have a bias.
It helps to have someone to talk to who will help you see the situation for what it is. When I was struggling in the discernment of my vocation, a wonderful priest I went to for guidance told me, “I want you to do what God wants you to do.” It gave me the peace that the guidance and counsel he provided would be coming from a place of objectivity, rather than wanting to sway me toward one vocation or another.
Having an excess of opinions
At the same time, it is possible to have too many opinions around you when you’re trying to discern something big. Well-intentioned people may offer their solicited or unsolicited opinions, and sometimes these can make it really difficult to make your own decisions without worrying about what others may think or say.
If you find yourself with too many voices trying to offer their insight, be sure to thank whoever it may be — parent, godparent, sibling, friend — for their help, but focus on how the decision will affect you and your life, rather than what your circle of friends and family think and want you to do.
This is why it is so helpful to find an objective third party to be your sounding board and help you pursue what you’re truly called to do. The ideal conversation partners is someone who has no vested interest in the outcome of your decision, but who is still invested in helping you discover what’s true and good.
Not being informed
Anything seems much scarier when you don’t know much about it. So the best way to aid your discernment is to educate yourself and get your questions answered. If you are hung up on making a decision, often more information will help. What does that job opportunity really entail? What do others say about working for the company? What is it really like to live and study in that graduate program?
If you’re discerning marriage with your significant other, “educating” yourself looks like spending ample time getting to know the person you’re dating for who they are as a person. It involves talking about the often hard-to-discuss topics. The better you get to know someone, the more clearly you’ll be able to see if this is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with or not.
And don’t overlook learning more about yourself. Getting data on the external realities around a decision — the people and context and culture and tasks — is only half of the equation. You need to match that up against what you know about yourself and what’s important to you. Being in touch with your deepest values and formative experiences will help clarify your deepest desires.
So ask lots of questions — from others and of yourself. Learning pros and cons removes the veil of uncertainty that often causes fear and apprehension.
Above all, seek peace
One thing that is a reliable guide in discernment is to seek peace. Which decision, or field, or person gives you a sense of deep and abiding peace? What gives you joy at the thought of the future — not apprehension, anxiety, and worry?
It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you’ve found it. And because of your careful discernment, you’ll be able to move forward into whatever you choose with a sense of confidence and serenity.