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24 February 2023

Judgement and discernment

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Last week I had an eye exam. You probably know the drill. You sit behind this huge machine and peer out at letters. The doctor offers one choice after another and asks you which is better for you. “A or B?” she’ll ask. And when you answer with your favourite, she’ll offer another choice and then another and another, slowly working your way towards a new pair of glasses, towards clearer sight.

I sometimes struggle with decisions, so the constant question of which was better was a little tiring. But mostly I was surprised it was so easy. B is better for me than A—I only had to trust my eyes.

And then back into my real life. Carolyn asked me to make what might have been a simple decision—how did I want to spend my evening? I struggled mightily (but not unfamiliarly, if I’m honest). What was the issue creating the struggle, Carolyn asked, helpfully. I dug into my confusion and found a pile of shoulds, a pile of expectations, a pile of judgements, all pushing me in different and confusing directions. As I sifted through the pile, I found none of the clarity that the eye test had offered. What does one do with this messy pile?

I thought about the eye test and its clear guidance and wondered if I could take all things other than clarity out of the pile. I sifted out the shoulds. There are no shoulds in an eye test; the very thought is absurd. These shoulds are my internalized cultural norms and more confusing than clarifying, more about appearances than truths. There were a pile of conflicting ideas about how I should spend my evening, whether I was living into my favourite identity as someone who solves for what is best for others. No wonder I couldn’t figure out what I wanted! I put the shoulds to one side.

I sifted out the expectations which are more about a vision for a mythical (and impossible-to-discern) future than about the reality of this moment. I had an image in my mind of the perfect evening but alas there was no pathway to get to it because it didn’t connect to the realities of my situation. I was spinning in a circle to get the perfection of my expectations met and was stuck in the spin since perfect expectations are always a blocker. There is no need to project forward in an eye test that either A or B will give you a more perfect future. I put swirl of expectations aside so that I could see the present rather than try to reach some fanciful future.

I sifted out the judgements. These were opinions of what was The Right Way, as if there were moral imperatives in my choice of activity. I had judgements like: It is better to be all together than in multiple groups, it is better to be with those people who need me to help or support them in some way. If I’m honest, these judgements are idiosyncratic and more about my history and psychology than what is morally better or worse. While it felt like there were some things that were inherently good or bad (like the often-culturally determined sense that something is beautiful or ugly), I remembered the eye exam. A is not somehow better in the abstract than B. A is simply better for me than B. I put my judgements to one side.

What was left was discernment: simply what I wanted to do, without all the chatter and confusion. I had such an amazing evening!

I am learning from my eye exam to focus more on this question of discernment these days. I am learning to strip out those pieces of my thinking that distract and confuse me. Perhaps I’ll end up with clearer sight whether I’m wearing my new glasses or not.

PS there is no good reason for the photo today except that my dog makes me smile and I have to believe she knows the difference between judgement and discernment.

One thought on “Judgement and discernment”

  1. Diana Manks says:

    Ah, this makes me breathe out a little Jennifer, releasing all the shoulds, what will people thinks, and social norms that are really just made up guidelines. What do I want to do. Thank you!

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