The challenge for most of us these days is to figure out how to relate to a world that seems somehow alien. How do learn to live in a new landscape that is both threatening and yet exciting and vital? How do keep our bearings? I like to think of the challenge as something like the gyroscope toy that can hold a miraculous, empowered steadiness on a precariously outstretched string as long as it stays whirling and centered.
One way we might use to help us steady our lives is a process of discernment. Discernment is not a word commonly used, but it’s a very useful concept as a disciplined guide in our lives these days.
A couple of definitions of discernment begin to suggest its use. The Webster dictionary says it is “the ability to judge well,” for example. Another definition is to “to separate; to distinguish.” Or an even more nuanced definition is simply “to perceive” suggesting that what we need to know is actually already there waiting to be known to us, waiting to be discerned. We already know what is “right,” what it is we need to do, if we can but access and trust our sense of discernment. But how do we discipline and co-ordinate the thoughts in our head and our observations of external events and information from the media and friends, and then run that through our intuitions, our body’s sensations, our emotions, our conscience? And in addition many of us wait in expectation for what we Quakers call a spiritual “leading,” a “nudge," a sense that our lives can and do receive transcendent inspiration to guide us in terms of how we are to be and do. Quaker writer, Jerry Knutson, calls discernment both a skill and a gift.* I like that.
So much of our emotional efforts these days are spent on the jagged edge of our souls: fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, for example. And before we know it we are carried away, at best, into thoughts of how to resist the injustice we see, and at worst, getting caught up in feelings of retaliation, dismissal and often shaky feelings of our self-righteousness. I want to use my capacity for disciplined discernment to keep nudging me in a different direction that will not only be more effective in countering the injustice but also help in keeping my soul and mental health in better balance - a little disciplined gyroscope whirling on the string.
What empowers and disciplines a sense of discernment? What might help cut through the unhelpful thoughts and emotions and instead guide us to perceive what we really need to be about in our personal, everyday lives and our worlds of workplace and public and civic responsibility?
I have often written about nonviolence as my centering and empowering force, a central discerning principle in my life, and I will always use active nonviolence in my framing of how I must confront injustice. But I want to explore the concept of discernment on a more personal, intimate level through a lens of unconditional love. Unconditional love does not expect reciprocity; it fosters a kind of open-heartedness to all that we encounter in our lives - our friends, our problems, our suffering, our hope and fears, even our enemies? What if our way of perceiving the world was through the disciplined discernment of unconditional love that becomes both a practiced skill and a gift received and given?
Each day in the coming week each of us will be faced with annoying, often frustrating, seemingly intractable challenges in both our personal and political lives. Understandably we may be discouraged and upset and angry. But in those situations we have an opportunity to “separate and distinguish,” as the definition above implies, about how we react to those times in our lives. Are we able to pause long enough to discern alternative responses, and might our primary choice be to act through unconditional love?
My imagining is that when any of us practice unconditional love as a primary form of discernment it would be both personally and socially transformative. What I am suggesting is obviously not novel, and many of you already subscribe to living in this mode, and bless you for it! But there is room in all our lives for improvement of this skill and the welcoming of its precious gift to ourselves and others. So when our little gyroscopes start to waver, try to rewind it by imagining how to deal with the situation with a process of disciplined discernment based on unconditional love. Let me know how it works: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Jerry Knutson, “Individual Spiritual Discernment," Pendle Hill Pamphlet #443, February, 2017