If someone had told me long time ago that not making a decision was making a decision, I would have put more effort into being better at making them.
Sure, it's easy to make choices when the stakes are low. But every so often you have to make a decision that will set you on a whole new trajectory into the unknown.
Sometimes these decisions require information, which complicates things even more so. Recent research suggests that we experience great pleasure when taking in information that supports our beliefs. This confirmation bias means we'd rather be right than true. Appealing to our emotions may stir and sway us, but it won't lead to a truly informed decision (see fake news and alternative facts).
Good advise can come from many unexpected places, such as the Jesuits in this case. I just finished James Martin's The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and found it particular poignant around how the Jesuits make decisions.
First, humility is the key. The Jesuits acknowledge that poverty of spirit means accepting that we are powerless to change certain aspects of ourselves. We are plagued with confusion, doubts, and restlessness. Therefore, we can't do it alone.
Martin brings out a beautiful meditation from Pedro Arrupe that can cut to the root of making difficult decisions:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”I love this quote, and I believe it eventually leads to choiceless choices. But there is also some additional practical advise that we can all use in the meantime.
Martin notes that many of Saint Ignatius's practices for making decisions came from his own life. Ignatius was a practical saint, despite having such a strict and courageous order. In his approach, he saw decisions falling into three categories each with different approaches.
The first category is the easiest, since these decisions bring the person to the place of neither doubting nor able to doubt. It's pure grace, or an Aha moment, where you are called to something that could be no other.
The second category is less clear. Ignatius suggestion focusing on decisions that bring you closer to consolation, which may feel like a sense of peace, tranquility, and joy, verses desolation, which moves the soul toward hopelessness or agitation. These types of decisions will require more reflection, prayer, and contemplation. One excellent practice is to live out each of your choices for a day, and see which alternatives bring you more harmony verses more dissonance.
The third category of decisions are the most difficult. Ignatius suggests using both reason and imagination. With reason, we can make lists, confer the price to the benefit to our soul with each choice, reflect upon it, and ask for guidance from God. With imagination we can visualize advise being given to us from a wise person we respect, or how we would feel about this decision if we were on our deathbed, or how we would feel about presenting this option to the our 'best self' or maybe even the Creator.
The key to all these practices is to have more objective discernment, and that can only come from the state of one's soul. This why discernment can be so tricky for us, because we easily be misguided by spirits if the state of our soul is not whole. Ignatius notes, “When the soul is different, they [evil spirits] enter with perceptible noise and are quickly noticed. When the soul is similar, they enter silently, like those who go into their own house by an open door.”
And what if we make a decision that appears to go poorly for us? Here, Martin quotes Teilhard de Chardin:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”So I go forth incomplete and in suspense of myself, ready to get my skin in the game of life. My first decision hereon is to end this post now. Voila!