The Death of Discernment?

How can discernment be revived? Reading, listening and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament are good ways to start.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Ignatius of Loyola”
Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Ignatius of Loyola” (photo: Register Files)

As a college teacher and as someone who works with a wide variety of people of all ages, I hear a lot of generalizations and assumptions about a broad scope of topics ranging from business, to government, to religion, to science, to demographics, to geography, to various occupations, and so on.

These generalizations, at first, seem to be based on either ignorance or apathy (or a combination of the two). For instance, I often hear students and others treat all people of countries in Asia as if they are one, giant, monolithic chunk of humanity. The thought that China, Israel, Turkey, (most of) Russia, Iraq and India are all part of the same continent is something that never appears to have crossed many peoples’ minds.

And what about demographics? Do all Southerners speak with one voice? Or African Americans? Are all Baby Boomers the same? Millennials? Gen Xers? When pressed, most would say, “Of course not.” But we tend to group people together if there is any common factor with which we can connect them.

You’ve likely heard many people also say, “All religions are basically the same.” But you will very rarely hear this said by someone who finds value in a particular religion — which encompasses more than half of the world’s population. But are they really the same? I suppose it depends on how you define “basically the same.” If by that you mean, “They all believe in some higher power” and “They all have certain rituals they follow” and “They all have some hypocrites among their ilk,” then yes, you would be correct. Otherwise, this type of generalization (as well as the others referenced above) begs further investigation.

It has occurred to me that maybe it’s not so much based (just) on ignorance or apathy. Maybe these generalizations are made because we are overwhelmed with access to information these days. How does one process 47 references to one point of view with 48 others that state the opposite? Our brains are wired to categorize that which we encounter. We find a need to neatly group things together that fit certain parameters. And when too much information comes at us on a continual basis, it’s typical that we shut most of that information out and either take a position that works for us, or we just throw up our hands and say, “It doesn’t really matter. It’s all the same.”

What’s been happening for several decades, I would propose, is the death of discernment (or at least its rapid decline). Being able to stop and critically evaluate a topic piece by piece with a discerning mind and heart is becoming more and more rare. We become a fan of one ideology so we refuse to acknowledge any shortcomings therein. Or we decide there’s nothing at all of value in another worldview, rather than looking for the good within. Many are less and less happy with their career choices, as well, because we rarely take the time to discern why we’re here and what talents we’re to make use of.

This practice of broad generalizations seems to be used especially in the case of religion. In fact, the word itself, “religion,” has even become almost taboo as if it’s a symbol of non-enlightenment or only for the practice of simpletons. There is a growing trend of self-focused, humanistic spiritualism that refuses to entertain the notion of the genuinely supernatural. It’s a sort of narcissistic neo-Gnosticism that seeks to “know” all that is needed through internal efforts, only to find this approach devolve into nihilism.

One of the subjects I teach is communication — both in the business realm and within the family dynamic. So, it’s fascinating to me that we have four aspects of communication: Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening. Virtually all of us have had many years of training with the first two, and most of us have had at least a course or two or specific training in speaking well (along with lots of practice). And yet, how many of us have had a course in that last category — Listening? Almost no one. And yet, 60% of business dealings that go sour are directly connected to poor listening. Nearly all divorces involve some degree of poor listening on the part of one or both spouses. And when it comes to our vocations, we don’t tend to be very good at listening to constructive criticism about our career choices. We aren’t very good at this because it’s never been emphasized in our education nor in our formation.

And at the risk of sounding trite, if you can’t listen well, you don’t hear well. We don’t hear what others are saying because we’re too busy preparing our response to the assumption we’ve made about what we THINK they’d probably say. We can’t stand silence so we have headphones or earbuds piping music or podcasts into our brains so that we don’t notice what’s going on right in front of us or beside us. We’re so busy creating distractions for ourselves that we never find the time to master a subject from all angles. And the worst thing of all is that we never hear that still, small voice of God and mistake that for him having nothing to say.

So, how can effective discernment be revived?

First, practice listening to others. Ask open-ended questions of genuine curiosity about them and their experiences, and then listen. Really listen. Become a student of others in this way.

Second, read. Not garbage news sources or agenda-driven narratives, but read intelligently-written information from credible sources. And read for fun. This practice will not only help make you a discerning thinker but you will also become a more interesting person.

Third, most importantly, spend regular and frequent time in Eucharistic Adoration. God’s waiting to reveal the Truth to you — about religion, about your purpose in life and about so much more. We can’t discern such answers if we don’t listen.