Every young adult faces different challenges as they navigate their shift out of adolescence into adulthood. Some head straight from high school to college, while others take gap years or pursue work first. The paths differ, but all are guided by the same, frustratingly necessary question:What am I going to do with my life?Whether this question hits the minute you turn 18 or doesn’t sink in until the last semester of senior year, the need to address it eventually is inevitable. Though we can change our mind over the years, it helps to have some idea of where the next step lies.As someone who is months away from finishing my undergrad degree, my palms get sweaty just thinking about it.I have never been very quick on my feet with decisions. I like to take my time, weigh all my options, and ask the opinion of anyone in my vicinity who cares to listen (and sometimes even those who don’t).Despite my diligence, I am not always confident or happy with the decisions I make. And yet, I have approached my decisions in this way, constantly questioning and double guessing myself, for as long as I can remember.Because my future career is a little more important than a choice of shoes, however, I realize that it’s about time I change my approach to decision-making.
The practice of discernment
The word discernment is most often linked to religious life. Young men discern the priesthood, women discern becoming a religious sister. While it is spiritually centered, it is not only decisions concerning religious life that require discernment. I like to think of it as a more holistic and healthier way of going about making decisions, especially for those of us who struggle in that department.The notion of discernment goes way back and is actually rooted in a teaching from St. Ignatius. He broke it down to the presence of both good and evil spirits, or the feelings of “consolation” and “desolation” as he put it, inside of all of us. When making decisions, St. Ignatius consulted his motive by questioning which of these spirits was leading him.Though classifying it as good vs. evil makes it sound pretty simple, the ability to distinguish between the two does not always come so easily. We often associate happiness with good and sadness with bad. However, you can feel sorrowful in a beautiful moment asking for God’s forgiveness, and you feel content and untroubled doing something that hurts your relationship with God down the road.Decisions are not black and white, so our approach to them cannot be either.We need to readjust our focus from a right versus wrong mentality to a way of looking at it that puts our health, happiness, and connection with God and others first.Though discernment can be an intense process, as outlined by Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises (some even encourage they are best practiced with a spiritual director), it also can begin with a few simple steps. For now, I am starting with the basic building blocks to work on changing the way in which I approach my decisions.
Tips for Discernment
A moment of silence can be invaluable in the process of clearing your head. A quiet space allows us to take a break from the noise and pull our focus inward. It is easier to untangle our thoughts when we aren’t distracted by things around us.
Talk with someone you love and respect.
While we need our quiet time, it is also important to get out of our head sometimes. A great way to do this is by turning to someone whose opinion you trust and value. Whether it’s a parent, friend, priest, or mentor, don’t be afraid to open up and talk through options.
Commit to prayer.
It’s hard to break a habit, so why not take advantage of that and make prayer one? Consciously set aside a time each day to incorporate prayer into your schedule, whether that means going to daily Mass or waking up 10 minutes earlier to fit in a morning reflection.
Listen to those around you.
Tragic though it may be, God doesn’t always answer our burning questions in letters across the sky. His voice may not even come to us through a whisper while deep in prayer. Instead, God’s replies to our doubts and questions are often revealed through the voices of others — those around us who know us and love us.
Be willing to sacrifice.
It may go without saying that God does not always give us the answer we want. Even when we think we know where we need to be heading, our direction can change in unexpected ways. As a result, there may come a time when we are called to sacrifice a plan or goal that we once held to tightly in order to make room for something else in our lives.
Figuring out what we want to do with our lives is not an overnight decision. Though the decisions we make are not necessarily final, they do set us on certain courses that we would not have explored otherwise. Because of this, it is important to remain patient, both with God and ourselves, as we figure out what comes next.When it comes down to it, the difference between discerning and deciding is centered in intention. Discerning is not about seeking answers. It is about seeking God. Discernment leads us to make choices rooted in faith and powered by trust.It’s difficult to make decisions completely on our own. When we turn to the guidance of God and others in our lives, we share the weight of our choices with others, so we don’t have to shoulder it alone.