Read an Excerpt
This book is about making decisions. Many books, workshops, seminars, podcasts, and self-study programs give advice about personal development. But less attention is given to the actual process of making a sound decision. How do you go about choosing between plausible, attractive alternatives? What factors are most important? What do you do when your heart conflicts with your head? These are the problems we are interested in here.
The approach we take was first laid out almost five hundred years ago by Ignatius of Loyola, a towering figure in the history of spirituality. Ignatius’s ideas about decision making and spiritual growth have had immense influence in the world—they have permeated the general secular culture. All those books and programs about personal development owe a debt to Ignatius’s insights and to the spiritual tradition based on them.
You don’t have to be a spiritual giant to make use of this book. Ignatius founded the Jesuits, the largest religious order in the Catholic Church, but he was a layman when he developed his approach to discernment and decision making. So he wrote for ordinary people. He was very observant, noticing what worked and what didn’t. You don’t have to be steeped in religious practice or have definitions of Christian doctrine at your fingertips to understand what he was saying.
You do need to accept a couple of principles. Chief among them is the conviction that God is active in your life and cares about your decisions. The Ignatian approach also calls for a couple of prerequisites: a sincere desire to choose the good and a willingness to do what’s necessary to become free enough to make the best choice.
If you have the desire and are willing to do what’s necessary, then you can make use of the soundest approach to decision making ever invented. Actually, Ignatius didn’t invent anything; he discovered some things that are true. That’s what this book is about.
When Wendy was a junior in high school, an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse swept through her small Ohio town. Several friends became addicted. One died in an auto accident caused by a driver high on meth. Many adults in the town became addicted and some lost their homes, businesses, and marriages. Several went to prison. Wendy knew people who tried and failed to break their addiction to this powerful drug. While still in high school, she resolved to do something about it.
The desire to help drug addicts grew while Wendy was in college. She graduated with honors and went to medical school. Now she is a resident in internal medicine, specializing in substance abuse. She likes working with addicts. She’s impressed with new treatment approaches and wants to work as a physician in a drug and alcohol treatment facility. Such work doesn’t pay well, but Wendy doesn’t care about money. She wants to help addicts. Although she’s not a regular churchgoer, she does believe that there is inherent meaning to life—it’s not just a random set of circumstances. She has felt the stirring of a sense of purpose while working in her chosen field, and she has found that prayerful reflection helps a lot in the process of choosing that work.
Wendy is in love with Robert, who is finishing his MBA. Robert wants to make money. He’s bright, energetic, and sought after by prospective employers. Now he is deciding among three attractive job offers: an analyst for a hedge fund, a position with a promising biotech start-up company, and a job with a multinational bank. Robert wants Wendy to marry him. He’s generous and kind, and Wendy feels deeply for him, but he doesn’t share her desire to help addicts. He’s tried to convince Wendy to go into a more lucrative branch of medicine. His philosophy is “Let’s get rich. Then we can do anything. We can start our own treatment clinic if that’s what you want.”
Wendy is torn. Sometimes Robert’s attitude displeases her, but at other times, it makes sense. She loves Robert, but she realizes she would have to give up her vision of a future to marry him. What should she do?
God Cares about Our Decisions
How should Wendy go about making this decision? That’s what this book is about. Here we present a methodology for decision making that has helped millions of people make sound and satisfying choices. The first step is to lay out our assumptions. What do we need to believe to make a good decision?
The first premise is that God cares about our decisions. This isn’t self-evident, and not everyone believes it. Many people don’t want to believe it. The notion that a higher power outside themselves has a stake in the choices they make strikes them as an impingement on their freedom. Even believers often share this sentiment to some degree. We like to think that we’re free, that we shape our own future, and that we need to protect our autonomy.
We are free, but the freedom we have comes from God. Our freedom has a purpose, and decision making is essentially a matter of discovering this purpose and aligning ourselves with it. God is at work in your life and cares about the decisions we make that shape our path.
The man who expressed this truth in a way that is especially convincing to us is Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque priest who lived and worked in Europe five hundred years ago. You will hear much about Ignatius in this book. He invented the methodology for decision making that we present here, and his insights into the spiritual dimension of discernment and the psychology of choosing have stood the test of time. Ignatius’s book The Spiritual Exercises is one of the most insightful and influential books about spirituality ever written. At the beginning of the book, Ignatius laid out his presuppositions about God and human beings in a note called “Principle and Foundation.” Here is part of it as translated by David L. Fleming, SJ, in a modern paraphrase. Wendy and everyone else facing a decision should begin here:
God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever. Our love response takes shape in our praise and honor and service of the God of our life.
All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
At the center of reality is a God who loves us, says Ignatius. The world God created is good. “All the things in this world” exist so that we can love better. Our decisions are choices about how we use the things in this world. Our decisions matter to God.
God cares. That’s our first premise. Our second premise is that “God’s will” is something more than a pious religious phrase.
We Can Know God’s Will
Charlotte retired at age fifty-five, when she and her husband, Phil—and their financial planner—decided that they didn’t need her income to build their retirement savings. She was glad to shut down her business as a freelance designer of educational software. She had enjoyed the work for many years, but the stress took a toll on her as she got older. She liked working with clients; she disliked the tedium of writing the software and the pressure of finding a steady stream of work. In retirement, Charlotte did some things she’d always wanted to do. She spent more time with her five grandchildren nearby. She volunteered at a nursing home and hospice. She took a painting class and worked on a committee to plan the annual art fair in her city. Sometimes she missed the challenge and satisfaction of her former work. Sometimes she felt restless. But she was happy.
One day, a former colleague called. His educational company had just landed a contract to develop software for a remedial reading program in the public schools. He offered Charlotte her dream job: she would head a group that defined the educational objectives of the program. And she would be working with reading teachers, which was the kind of work she loved. A bonus—she wouldn’t have to write any code. The pay was excellent and the hours flexible. Her friend emphasized how much good Charlotte could do working on a successful program to help children read. Charlotte immediately said yes. “I felt like God himself was giving me this job,” she said.
The kind of decisions we’ll be talking about in this book are similar to Charlotte’s—choices between two or more attractive, morally permissible alternatives. Charlotte could continue in a satisfying, productive retirement, or she could return to satisfying, productive work. This is not a choice between good and evil. There’s no clear right or wrong option. The question for Charlotte—and for us, most of the time—is, Which is the better choice? If God cares, what is God’s will?
“God’s will” is a loaded, imprecise, and controversial phrase. The first problem is, What is the nature of God’s will? One view is that God’s will is completely objective, a plan made for us before we were born that exists independently of our desires, feelings, history, choices, and relationships. At the other extreme is the view that God’s will is subjective; whatever we do to fulfill our potential and attain happiness is God’s will.
The second problem has to do with knowing God’s will. We sometimes run across people who are certain that they know what God’s will is in specific matters: television preachers, religious zealots. They make us nervous—or envious. Lucky you, to know what God’s will is. I wish I did. At the other extreme are people who don’t have the slightest idea what God might want of them when they face an important decision, and so they think it’s a waste of time even to ask. Their God is detached or indifferent or inaccessible.
Finally there’s the problem of doing God’s will. Some people think that, once they know what God wants, they can do it. It’s simply a matter of willpower, of bold, decisive action. The view at the other extreme is that gravely flawed, easily tempted sinners like us are seldom able to do what God wants. We’re bound to fail. (Interestingly, people at both extremes tend to think that God generally wants people to make heroic, difficult, and unpleasant gestures of renunciation.)
Ignatian discernment lies somewhere in the middle of all of these views. God’s will is neither totally objective nor entirely subjective. It’s a blend of both—God’s desire for us manifests to a large degree in our own desires and struggles. God’s will is something we can know, but we can’t be sure that we know it perfectly. We are sinners with flawed minds and wayward hearts and an impressive capacity for self-delusion. In fact, the mechanics of Ignatian discernment consist largely of techniques to free ourselves of attachments to desires and ideas that lead us astray. Finally, Ignatian discernment holds that we’re entirely capable of doing God’s will once we properly discern it. But this is not a matter of simple willpower. Doing God’s will is more a matter of growing into the kind of person we’re meant to be.
So, when Charlotte was offered her dream job out of the blue, she wasn’t mistaken to think that God had something to say about the decision she faced. But her decision-making process? That’s another matter.
Our Feelings Are a Key to Discernment
At age thirty, after much discussion and prayer, Anne decided to quit her job and go to graduate school. Many experienced people thought she had impressive literary talent. Her short stories had been praised. A couple of well-known fiction editors in New York were impressed by a draft of her novel. Anne wanted to learn her craft and see how far she could go as a writer. Her husband agreed with her decision. So they packed up and moved to the University of Iowa, where Anne started work on an MFA.
The decision stunned most of Anne’s friends and family. She was a highly successful journalist in Los Angeles. She had won awards for her magazine writing, and at age twenty-eight she had become editor of a city magazine and boosted its circulation by 40 percent in two years. Most of Anne’s friends thought she should pursue a journalism career in Los Angeles. Even some of her literary mentors thought she should keep her day job and write on the side. But Anne was firm in her decision to go to school.
Her first months in Iowa City were very difficult. Some aspects of the program disappointed her. She didn’t connect well with a couple of her teachers, and she didn’t make any friends. Truth be told, Anne could barely write. Emotionally, she was up and down. When she was feeling low, plagued by thoughts that she had made a big mistake in choosing graduate school, she longed to go back to journalism in California. At other times, she felt she had made the right decision. But sadness persisted, and she couldn’t shake the idea of quitting and returning home. She began to seriously consider the idea.
Anne doesn’t know what to do. Her feelings pull her in one direction and then in the other. They seem to be a problem, but actually they are part of the solution. Her emotions contain valuable information about the direction life should take. Learning to interpret emotions is one of the best ways to discern God’s will for our choices in life.
This was the key insight that our hero, Ignatius, had about the problem of decision making. When he faced an important decision, Ignatius would contemplate the alternatives and pay attention to how he felt about them. These feelings, he realized, often pointed the way to the best choice. Over the years, Ignatius became expert in interpreting these feelings. From him, we learn that the answers to the question, What is God asking of me? can be found in the inner movements of feelings within our hearts.
Five hundred years ago, many people thought this idea was dangerous nonsense. It remains a controversial idea in some circles today. Ignatius’s view that ou emotions can be trusted rests on an expansive, optimistic view of the relationship between God and human beings. Ignatius believed that God deals directly with us. God works in our minds; he also works in our feelings. Ignatius said that we can look at our human experience of life with a basic attitude of trust. This includes our desires and inclinations, our likes and dislikes, our highs and lows.
The contrary view—that our emotions are deceptive and troublesome—has a long and distinguished history. Thinkers from the ancient Greeks to Sigmund Freud have held that human emotions are a shifting sea of passion and illusion that we are well advised to master or ignore. The theological version of this outlook holds that natural human inclinations are misguided because of sin. They lead us, not toward, but away from God. We’re to be suspicious of our feelings. Certainly we can’t expect to find God speaking through them.
Echoes of this attitude resonate today. We value our emotions and prize them as the locus of the authentic self, but many of us are reluctant to make them an important part of decision making. The predominant cultural view is that reason and analysis are sounder bases for action than our feelings. The head trumps the heart. “That’s just the way I feel,” we say. Or worse, “I can’t trust my own judgment.”
You can trust your judgment and your feelings, Ignatius would say, and we agree. Anne’s alternating moods of despair and satisfaction as she struggles in graduate school are full of spiritual meaning. The trick is to understand that meaning.
Ignatius can help us with this. He discovered some very practical ways of discerning, or sorting through, our emotions. His discoveries proved so useful that the process of decision making he developed is popularly referred to as discernment—that’s the term we will use in this book. We will define discernment more clearly in chapter 4, but for now, we simply use the word to refer to the process of decision making.
There’s a Methodology to Making Decisions
Charlie is the administrator of a large cardiovascular surgical unit at a university hospital. It’s a demanding job; he routinely works fifty-hour weeks, sometimes more. A year ago, when the youngest of his three children started college, Charlie was freed up to take on some outside volunteer projects. He joined the board of a nonprofit organization that supports music education in the city’s public elementary schools, with a particular focus on minorities and children of immigrants. Charlie has accomplished a great deal, raising substantial funding and helping recruit local musicians to volunteer their time. The program has been expanding. Charlie is very satisfied with his work. He loves music, and he likes the idea of helping young people learn to love it, too.
A month ago, two close friends of Charlie’s asked him to join them on the board of a nonprofit organization that sponsors literacy education projects in the community. The group needs fund-raising help, some new ideas, a jolt of energy. Charlie is well equipped for all of this, and immediately he’s drawn to the idea. He thinks about it for a while, and the answer seems clear: he says no to his friends. He doesn’t have the time to serve on both boards, and his work in music education has been very productive. However, the idea of literacy education won’t go away. Charlie keeps thinking about the invitation. He puts it aside; it keeps coming back. He wonders, Should I reconsider? Should I do this?
Who hasn’t faced Charlie’s dilemma? Two attractive options present themselves—job offers, career paths, volunteer opportunities, dates for Saturday night. You can’t have both. The head says one thing and the heart says another. How do you sort it out?
Ignatius’s first great contribution to the discussion was his realization that our emotions are an important factor in decision making. His second achievement—even more important, in our view—was to develop a methodology for decision making that can be usefully applied to situations like Charlie’s. Our feelings have to be interpreted; we shouldn’t always just go with our gut, at least in most situations. And feelings aren’t the only consideration. Analysis is part of decision making, too, as are our life circumstances, the advice of others, and prior commitments and decisions. Most of this book elaborates on the method Ignatius developed to make sense of all these factors.
It took Ignatius many years to develop his method. Some of his initial stabs at discernment were primitive. Shortly after his conversion, he was traveling down a road in rural Spain in the company of an argumentative Muslim. The Muslim said something insulting about the Blessed Virgin Mary and galloped away. Ignatius’s first impulse was to go after the Muslim to avenge the insult. His second impulse was to let it go. The conflicted Ignatius let his donkey make the decision. He would kill the Muslim if the donkey took one fork in the road. He would ride away peacefully if the beast took the other road. The donkey took the peaceful route.
Ignatius soon acquired enough maturity as a Christian to be able to make such decisions without the help of his donkey. But a couple of important points were clear even at this very early stage. He knew what it meant to be torn between two impulses. He had the good sense to hesitate—to reflect before making a decision. And he understood that he needed help when the decision wasn’t clear. The story reveals another facet of Ignatius’s personality. He told the story himself in his Autobiography many years later, when he was an esteemed churchman and the head of a dynamic new religious order. He didn’t mind telling a story that made him look a little foolish; it seems that he took pains to show that not even the great Ignatius had all the answers.
But Ignatius had enough answers to the problem of decision making that millions of people throughout the centuries have looked to him for guidance. He developed a method and an approach. His advice about interpreting the inner movements of the heart is summarized in “Rules for Discernment of Spirits.” He proposed three methods for making decisions and fleshed out how these methods work in practical terms. Ignatian decision making works best when we can listen and reflect on our experience and develop sensitivity to subtle spiritual signals. Ignatius gave us tools to help us acquire these skills as well.
People like Charlie can dig into an Ignatian tool kit to make their way forward when the road seems unclear.
Decisions Lead to More Decisions
Jon was bored at his job as an information technology engineer for a real estate company. He wanted to do something that served people’s needs more directly. His friends encouraged him to make a change, as did his pastor and a couple of other people whom he thought had spiritual insight. He considered several options: going to graduate school for a degree in social work; living off his savings for a year while he did volunteer work, took some courses, and considered his future; or joining a friend in a new company that helped nonprofit agencies with their fund-raising and business operations.
Jon did none of these things. He decided to travel and taste some adventure while he was still young and single, so he went to Uganda to help a small nongovernmental organization set up and operate AIDS clinics. It was a disastrous experience. The job was enormously stressful. He was unprepared for African culture. He was disheartened by Ugandan poverty and the vast scope of the AIDS crisis. He fell ill with an intestinal ailment that didn’t go away. Six months into the job—lonely, sick, and depressed—he quit and came home. He wanted to find out what went wrong and what he should do next.
Uganda seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was pretty clearly the wrong place for Jon. Now, Jon has more decisions to make. Part of the process is to look back on his African adventure and learn from it. He’ll also evaluate the thinking that led to the decision to go there. He’ll look at why he was bored at his former job. And he’ll take a closer look at what he really wants from life.
The point is that decisions lead to more decisions. It can be narrow and misleading to think of decision making in terms of a single decision. The model is a journey. The end is “life forever with God,” in the words of Ignatius’s “Principle and Foundation.” The road to this end is a meandering one. Our travels are punctuated by decisions, some of them crucial, even life changing, but we seldom arrive at a point where no further decisions are necessary.
Ignatian decision making isn’t linear. It’s more of a spiraling circle. We reflect on our experience, make a decision based on reflection and discernment, put the decision into practice, experience the result, reflect on that experience, and so forth. It’s a circular process that carries us deeper and forward into a life lived with God.
Thus, even our mistakes can be useful material in the next decision. In fact, it’s hard to think of a decision that is absolutely bad with no redeeming qualities and possibilities. As long as we’re walking the road with open-mindedness, as long as we’re seeking to do good and to love God and our fellow human beings, we’ll continue to grow and learn. Jon probably shouldn’t have gone to Uganda. Anne might have made a mistake in going to graduate school. You might be badly overcommitted because of your unfortunate tendency to agree to do more work without thinking about it. But you can do better next time—in part because you can learn from what didn’t go especially well.
We don’t have to have it all together to make sound decisions. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t need to be deterred by imperfect knowledge and murky circumstances. If we are earnestly seeking God, we won’t go far wrong.
The fact is this: the decision is not the goal. That may sound like a Zen paradox, but it’s actually quite consistent with our premises. The goal is to grow in a relationship with God. The decisions we make are means to this end. Ignatius put it this way in his “Principle and Foundation” at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises: “Our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”
The only prerequisite for good decision making is a desire to make this one choice to grow in life with God. This is a demanding requirement, as you will see. But it’s not a requirement that involves a lot of religious doctrine or specific religious practices. A desire to grow in a relationship with God means that we believe that God is a personal being who loves us, who is active in the world and in our lives, and whose mind is accessible to us through prayer and discernment. These are broadly Christian beliefs. We are Christians, and Ignatius developed his approach to discernment in a Christian context. But the beliefs that are key to discernment are not creeds and dogmas. The necessary spiritual practices involve personal prayer and reflection.
That’s not to say that doctrines and churchgoing are unimportant. They are, and they can be tremendously helpful in living out whatever decisions you come to. But that’s a discussion for another day. What you need to go forward with Ignatian discernment is a sincere desire to choose the good and a conviction that God cares about you.
Armed with these ideas, you’re ready to tackle the first big question: Why are decisions so tough?