I probably watch more YouTube videos than I should, and I probably also think about nuns more than your average YouTube video viewer. I love it when those sides of me unite, though.
In my wandering about the Internet, I stumbled across a delightful video from a TEDx talk at Virginia Tech, “Why Nuns Don’t Have Mid-Life Crises.” I was intrigued because I like nuns, I usually like TED and TEDx talks, and I definitely don’t like mid-life crises (or the quarter-life crisis I’ve been having lately). So I watched Jenni Sigler’s 13-minute presentation and found myself charmed, emboldened, and maybe a little less lost.
“Charming” is one of those words like “charismatic” that you can’t really use to describe yourself without sounding self-centered. (It’s hard to be humble when you’re awesome.) I will do it for Ms. Sigler: she is a charming speaker. Studying communication not only gave her the empirical data behind her assertions, but it clearly taught her how to give a killer presentation. As she explains, she, like me (and perhaps some of you readers) is not a shining example of how to make a good decision. She found several groups of people who were absolutely certain they had made the right decision—and they were all religious sisters. Nuns have discernment down to an art.
Ask a married couple how they knew they were in love, and you’ll probably hear a variation on, “We just knew.” Nuns “just know,” too, but in Sigler’s research, there was a pattern to finding that knowledge. She offers four steps for discernment:
- Embrace silence. When you listen, you will learn to be honest with yourself about what you really want and what will really make you happy. For Christians, this means spending time in prayer—significant time, as in regular periods of a half-hour or hour, not three minutes while you’re waiting at a long light. Give God the time and space to speak to you if you want to hear him.
Recognize a persistent pull. The right decision won’t let you just walk away from it. God had to call Samuel three times before he figured out who was calling to him, and that was the kind of call you hear with your ears! If you seek the kind of call you hear with your heart, you need to get acquainted with the way your heart moves. What do you want? God will give you the desire for what he desires for you.
Make the decision, and trust that it will be okay. You will drown in regret if you don’t give it a chance. If you think you should marry the person you’re dating, start talking about marriage. If you think you should break up, start preparing to heal. If you think you should get a new job, start mentioning your plans to key contacts. Maybe it’s a mistake, but maybe this is just the beginning of the best decision you’ll ever make.
Wait until peace and joy arrive, confirming your decision. If you don’t feel peace about your decision, start over! Until you’re dead, you can try again. If just the idea of making firm commitments makes you uneasy, take a step back and pray some more. Listen. Happiness comes and goes, but its bedrock is joy, a fruit of the Spirit.
Those four steps made me feel much more confident about my patterns of discernment. I firmly believe that the only way to know if a decision is the right one is to make it (or imagine yourself making it), and then see how you feel about it. The right decision will feel good. The wrong decision will not feel good. You really will “just know.” You can trust your gut, your conscience, and the Holy Spirit who has given you new life. I can trust, too!
Perhaps the most enlightening part of Sigler’s presentation is its broad secular application. She learned about discernment from nuns, but discernment is not just for people who believe in God, as she points out. Another thing I firmly believe is that truth is objective. This process of discernment is an example of that objectivity. It is centered around God. God is the source of all truth, so this way of making decisions is true even for those who don’t believe in God. Truth is truth.
Maybe I’m not as lost in my quarter-life crisis as I think I am. Perhaps I just need to continue enjoying the silence and paying attention to what I hear rising from it. What will you hear when you listen?