Catholicism: Day 9 – Jesuit Decision Making

Yesterday’s spiritual exercise was tough. I was supposed to pray on Psalm 104 and consider “Where do I see this awesome glory revealed in my life and the larger world?”

Unlike the day before yesterday, when I was very happy that we had some warm weather come in, I was just tired and unable to achieve a thankful mindset.

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James Martin dedicates a whole chapter in his book to making good decisions.  This is an area of my life that I struggle with quite a bit, so I was curious to see how a Jesuit would apply Ignatian principles to life decisions.

Here are a few of the key principles:

Indifference

Indifference in this case means being detached when considering different options. It does not mean you trivialize your decision, but rather, you become aware of factors that could unfairly nudge your decision in one direction or another. For example, if your family always pressured you be a doctor, you should do your best to become indifferent to their pressure. You need to be open to different options that you may not feel inclined towards initially.

You don’t want to imitate the unscrupulous butcher who sticks his thumb on the scale to fudge the weight. That’s cheating. Starting off by assuming that you should decide one way or the other is cheating yourself out of a good choice.

Recognizing Consolation vs. Desolation

When considering various options, it’s important to pay attention to how you feel about it. When you feel consolation, “you will feel a sense of rightness, of peace.”

You will feel like you are moving towards goodness and tranquility. When you feel desolation, you feel

…obtuseness of soul, turmoil within it, an impulsive motion toward low and earthly things, or disquiet from various agitations and temptations. These move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord.

If the thought of taking the job with higher pay over a less lucrative but more meaningful job makes you feel…empty or sad, pay attention to those feelings.

Only choose between goods, maintain commitments, and don’t change for change’s sake

The Jesuits only apply these principles in which you are choosing between two goods. It’s not a choice between punching your boss in the face and keeping your job to support your family. Obviously, don’t punch your boss in the face.

If you’ve made commitments that you can’t change, then you should maintain your commitment so long as they are not obviously “evil.”

In addition, if you’ve chosen a path that you are relatively comfortable with and don’t have a good reason to change it, stay on the path. If you made a good decision but have transient feelings of sadness, that is not a good reason to change course

Let’s say you have decided to be a more generous person and will forgive someone against whom you’ve had a grudge for many months. So you speak with your friend. If your forgiveness doesn’t seem to heal the relationship immediately, it does not mean you should stop being a forgiving person.

However, it’s ok to revisit a changeable bad decision. We’ve all made those and if possible, we should seek to reverse them

Decision Making Frameworks

The Three Times

The “Three Times” framework gives you three different scenarios for decision-making and the steps you take when you encounter them.

The “First Time” decisions are relatively easy decision. Say you’ve always wanted to be an actor and you’ve been selected to be the lead in a play. This is obviously the correct decision to make and you will have no doubt in your mind that it’s what you’re supposed to do.

The “Second Time” decisions are more ambiguous. An example of this would be deciding between staying at your company or leaving your company for a more interesting but less lucrative position. In this case, you would need to pay very close attention to any feelings of consolation or desolation that rise within you when you think about your options.

The author long felt suspicious about this method, like it was some sort of trick or superstition.

“Does God zap you with consolation, like a magic trick, to help you make the right choice?

No.

As David Lonsdale writes, we feel peace about a particular decision when it is “coherent with” God’s desires for our happiness. Ignatius understood that God works through our deepest desires. When we are following that path to God, things seem right. Things feel in synch because they are in synch.”

You can also imagine yourself choosing an option and acting as if you made the decision ,and then pay attention to how you feel.

Normally our minds move restlessly from one alternative to the other, jumping like a nervous grasshopper from one blade of grass to the next, never giving ourselves sufficient time to consider either alternative. But after imaginatively living with one course of action, and then the other, certain things will come to mind that you may not have noticed before.

The “Third Time” is the most ambiguous scenario. You are choosing among two or more options and you are not feeling clearly pulled in any direction. There is very little clarity.

Saint Ignatius provided a few methods for making this kind of decision; here are the steps to the first method:

1)   Put before yourself in prayer the choice. You’ll sit down and make it clear what the options are.

2)   Identify your ultimate objective. For Saint Ignatius, this was to please God. For you, it might be something else. [Note: This is a difficult step for me. I don’t have an ultimate objective]

3)   Ask God to move your heart towards the better decision.

4)   Make a pros and cons list for each option. This reminds us that all decisions have both positive and negatives. Very few decisions are a 100% either way

5)   Pray about your lists and see which way your reason inclines. This takes time but eventually you will come to a choice that brings you some peace.

6)   Ask for some sort of confirmation from God that this is the right decision. Confirmation comes in different forms. Perhaps it is a feeling of consolation or desolation, perhaps it’ll just be a simple feeling that you shouldn’t do something. Or maybe your office building will burn down and then you’ll know its time to switch careers.

Martin describes the First Method as being reason­ based. Though it seems like obvious advice, many people are not being indifferent or detached from their decisions. The First Method helps counter that process.

Using lists in decision-making is common. What Ignatius adds to this approach is indifference, praying over the list, seeking confirmation, and trusting that God is part of the process, because God desires your happiness and peace.

The Second Method offers a different set of techniques that could be helpful if the First Method felt too cold and analytical.

1)   Imagine what you’d tell a person you never met who was making the same decision as you are. This helps you remove the focus on yourself.

2)   Imagine yourself on your deathbed reflecting on your decisions. This is not a simple, “YOLO” mindset, but rather, a way to sort out what is expedient now versus what might be beneficial in the long run.

3)   Imagine yourself at the Last Judgment. Here, you would be standing before God trying to explain the decision you chose. Would he be happy with it? If you chose to take the higher paying job at the expense of spending time with your family, would God be pleased?

4)   Bonus: Imagine what your “best self” would do. Think of what the more confident, loving, and mature version of yourself would do in this situation. This will help expose your insecurities and fears and show you where these are holding you back from making good decisions.

Most of these steps may sound familiar to you, especially if you read self-improvement type books. There is more language about God in the Jesuit decision-making process, but the fundamental principles hold true.

For example, the step that tells you to “imagine yourself at the Last Jugement” is quite an illuminating mental exercise, even if you don’t believe in God. I just used the technique with a minor decision this morning. “Should I sleep an extra hour or should I get up and write a blog post?”

I thought about explaining this decision to God and the answer was pretty clear, get up and write the damn blog post.

I’ll report back on any decisions I make using the above practices. 

  • Joe Choi

    I think I’ve violated the “don’t change for change’s sake” a few times. Ha!

    • DaleDavidson149

      As have I. It’s hard not to absorb the modern advice of changing jobs/cities/whatever as soon as things become uncomfortable.