When we are going through a midlife transition or another big change in our lives—a change that means a long transition and many days of desolation and darkness—we often feel a sense of urgency to discern God’s will for us because so many things in our lives are changing and we need to make decisions about how to move forward with our lives. Yet, how do we discern God’s will for us in the midst of a big transition when it is accompanied by a sense of confusion, loss, darkness, and even desolation (as big transitions often are)?
Ignatius of Loyola, along with other saints such as Francis de Sales, counsel that in times of desolation, we should stay with our good resolutions that we made before we entered such a time of desolation. In times of great distress it is easy to give in to feelings of discouragement, to give up. It can even be easy to impulsively decide to radically change the direction of our lives because everything feels different or overwhelming.
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When we pursue anything new that requires commitment, we will face multiple crises when we will reevaluate whether it’s worth pursuing. One of our culture’s most frequently used metaphors about perseverance through difficulty is sports movies. Sports films illustrate well the importance of persevering through a particular moment of failure and desolation. (The film Rudy is one of my favorites in this regard.) As the protagonist goes through their biggest moments of crises and discouragement, we root for them to continue on, because we know that the crisis is temporary, and the person can only make a good decision (discernment) when they base their decision on the entire experience, not just the discouragement and desolation they feel now.
In the film Freedom Writers (2007), first-time teacher Erin Gruwell (portrayed by Hilary Swank) chooses to teach in a tough, gang-infested school because she wants to make a real difference in the lives of troubled teens. At first, the kids in her classes ignore her entirely, the other teachers discourage her and even make it more difficult, her father pressures her to teach at a school in a safer neighborhood, and her husband wants her to spend less time with the kids and more time at home. At a certain point, it seems that Erin’s big heart and belief in these kids isn’t enough. She has to face the truth that what she’s doing in the classroom isn’t working. The temptation comes, of course, for her to give up teaching at that school, and perhaps to give up teaching altogether.
Instead, Erin digs deep. As she creatively confronts each obstacle, we cheer her on, because she doesn’t allow failure, isolation, discouragement, and desolation to overwhelm her. Although she has to adjust her attitudes and how she teaches, she doesn’t give up on these kids nor on her original purpose.