How to discern with a ticking clock?

dramatic-sky-210776_1280Every good story has key turning points in which the rest of the protagonist’s life is affected. Turning points in our lives are usually, but not always, recognizable. In BBC’s Sherlock, a recent retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, Dr. Watson’s decision to become roommate to the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes is the definitive turning point upon which Dr. Watson’s entire future is based, although Watson certainly did not know that at the time. (It changes Sherlock’s life profoundly, too, although he is slower to admit it—see season 3.) In storytelling, turning points are characterized by their importance in affecting characters’ lives, whether they know it or not.

What about when we do know that a decision will shape the rest of our life? How do we navigate the tensions and challenges of making such an important decision when we face specific constraints? Constraints like:

  • a ticking clock (we have to choose a course of study before the semester starts; we have 48 hours to accept a new job; etc.),
  • the needs or expectations of family members,
  • the reality that saying “yes” to one thing is saying “no” to everything else–and some “no’s” we can’t take back.

Constraints may seem more pressing in larger discernments, but they are part of every discernment, to be impartially looked at, prayed over, and evaluated as part of our seeking God’s will.

It’s true that bigger decisions can bring greater pressure and often greater time constraints, which also means that it can be harder to enter into the quiet necessary for us to hear God’s gentle invitations, or discover our deeper desires. It can also be harder to detach from external pressures, and even to evaluate which of our desires are ego-driven and which resonate with our deeper desire to do God’s will.

In these situations, we have several choices:

1) Evaluate external constraints that put pressure on us to make a quick decision: are they real or are they unnecessary pressures? For example, we may feel pressure to rush to select our major area of study at a certain point. Is this the expectation of parents, teachers, customs, or school? Is it our own expectation or goal, or is it a real requirement of the program? If it is a real requirement, can we ask for an extension? Is there a possibility of changing it later?

Others’ expectations can seem to be a real constraint, but most often they can—and need—to be put aside in order to discern well. If the external constraints are not real, then we can take the time we need to discern.

On the other hand, sometimes constraints are real. In this case, we still have choices.

2) Delay when possible. Sometimes we may feel so pressured that we can tell we’re not thinking clearly; we feel muddled, unable to gain the interior detachment to freely make a choice. If this is the case, and there is any way to delay our decision so that we have the time to pray over and discern our choice, this is a good time to delay. However, this doesn’t mean to simply avoid the issue altogether.

(Deciding to make no decision at all until after the deadline has passed is not discerning. Instead, we are making a negative decision. Rather than prayerfully discerning as best we can, we are simply saying “no,” turning away from the opportunity in front of us. This is not real discernment.)

If the time constraints are firm and unavoidable, then we simply move forward to make the best decision we can:

3) Do the best we can within the limits placed on us. We are only human, and God knows our strengths and weaknesses, and will work with us in our limitations.

One thing we can do is to actually use the time and energy we have to focus on discerning. Sometimes we become so frantic that we don’t take the time and opportunities we actually have. Put aside other, less urgent activities and make space—even small amounts of space—to discern. Make a half day of retreat; go to make a Eucharistic hour of adoration after work; take a long walk; put aside a couple of errands so that you have time to talk over your discernment with a trusted mentor.

The key in dealing with external constraints is to examine each pressure to see if it’s valid and to give each one only as much importance as it truly deserves.

It’s important that we discern as best we can. If external limitations make a rapid decision necessary, we trust that God will be faithful to his love for us, and will work through our limitations and deepest desires, as he always does. Trust is essential in every discernment: to place ourselves and our future in God’s loving hands.

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