Discernment: A Response to Existential Despair

Discernment: A Response to Existential Despair

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath paints a bleak picture of a live lived without discernment, clarity, a sense of calling, or the ability to choose. There was a phase of my life where I completely identified with her (and still do from time to time) but I feel like I’ve been discovering ways out of that tree and have been able to grab onto some of those figs rather than watching them wrinkle and plop to the ground.

I still wrestle with periods of existential despair where I find myself asking, “Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What should I do? Am I in control of my life? Am I letting my life slip by? Where am I needed? What should I learn? What skills should I develop? Do I have value?”

But I’m learning to shift my focus.

Such feelings are complicated and I would be remiss to oversimplify any sort of resolution to one’s own existential crisis, but I’d like to present just a few of the thoughts and ideas that have been helpful in pulling me out of this paralyzing way of thinking.

1. I’m learning the importance of being myself.

(Cliché, I know, but it really is so profound.)

A question from Marin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim has played the biggest catalyst in helping me get out of Slyvia Path’s fig tree. It reads: “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

When I first read this I was stunned. I had been guilty of spending much energy comparing myself to others, wishing my life looked like theirs, or wondering why I wasn’t more like them, and so on. I pictured myself at the end of my life asking myself, “Why weren’t you Lance?” It is a convicting and challenging question.

I then went on to realize was that many of the people who I admired were admirable because they were being completely themselves. Their lives became gifts to the world when they became most fully themselves.1

Sure, we are all inspired and influenced by others, but the most creative, inventive, and admirable people tend to be those who stay true to what makes them unique and unwaveringly pursue their own distinctive calls. The best musicians aren’t the ones who try to sound exactly like another, they tend to be the ones who courageously cultivate their own sound and are vulnerable enough to put it out into the world despite an unprecedented sound.

David Benner writes, “The desire for uniqueness is a spiritual desire. So too is the longing to be authentic. These are not simply psychological longings, irrelevant to the spiritual journey. Both are the response of spirit to Spirit—the Holy Spirit calling us home to our place and identity in God.”2  We’ll be most fulfilled spiritually and vocationally by staying true to and following our inner most longings and desires. 

2. I’m learning to use practical tools and exercises for discernment—specifically through the Ignatian process of discernment.

There are entire books written on Ignatian discernment, but this is a great summary of the basic discernment process that has been helpful to me: (From God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will):

Phase 1: Get quiet

  • I need a consistent and meaningful prayer life. By definition, discernment is all about prayer. If I am to discern well, I must have a prayer life.
  • What matters is that I am reaching out to God. If I’m sincere, I can’t really mess it up.
  • I don’t need to pray for long stretches of time every day, but I do need to pray a little every day.
  • My prayer life will go more smoothly if I have a consistent time and place, and rituals for starting and closing.

Phase 2: Gather data

  • Gather as much information as you possibly can. Google, speak to experts, look at charts, ask lots and lots of questions, ask friend and mentors.
  • Brainstorm. Before going further in the decision making process, think up as many wild and crazy ways to respond. It may be that there is some hidden, viable option out in the field of your imagination that will reveal itself in the midst of this holy brainstorming.

Phase 3: Dream the Dreams—tap into deep desires

  • Ignatius held the radical notion that God dwells within our desires. Desires are one of God’s primary instruments of communicating to us. Ignatius did not seek to quash desires but to tap into the deepest desires of the heart, trusting that it is God who has placed them there.
  • Ignatius would define sin as disordered desire. We fall into since when we are ignorant of the true, God-given desires beneath the apparent desires.
    Allow God to dream in you. Sit in silent awe and wonder as these holy dreams come to life before the eyes and ears of my soul.
  • Allow yourself the freedom to imagine the best-case scenarios for each option.

Phase 4: Ponder the dreams—weigh desolations and consolations

  • Which dreams leave me in consolation? In desolation?
  • Which leave me with a sense of deep-down peace? Note that I am searching for the deep-down peace, as opposed to simply feeling comfortable with the option. It may well be that God’s will likes in the most frightening option.
  • There will be a moment at this point in my discernment when I sense a transcendent peace and tranquility and an undeniable yes that pulses through my veins every time I imagine myself going with one particular option over the others. Other options will begin to fade away.

Other Exercises

  • Write a basic pros and cons list. Pray over it. It is amazing how when our thoughts remain abstract and inside our heads they can seem so confusing and difficult to sort out. Sometimes writing a basic pros and cons can allow us to concretely visualize what we are thinking and help us make a more objective decision about it.
  • Imagine yourself as a mentor to someone younger or less experienced. What would you advise?
  • Imagine yourself as a very old person near the end of my life or perhaps just after you’ve died? What do you wish you would have done?

3. Lastly, I’m learning to pay attention and give credence to the seeds of life that are already within me—rather than focusing on what I don’t have.

(While you are rarely every privy to this, there are people who look at you and admire you greatly for aspects of who you are, your skills, character, etc. They do so because you are uniquely and distinctly you.)

When thinking outside of myself, I tend to fail to recognize those areas of my life where I already have certain gifts and talents, and end up minimizing or letting them stagnate because I deem them insignificant or irrelevant.

Walter Ciszek argues, “‘Do what you’re doing!’ We tend to obsess over what we wish we were doing, or what we might be doing instead of our boring jobs, or what we would like to be doing that someone else is doing, or what we could have been doing if our luck had been better. Such preoccupations distract us from whatever real opportunity lies right in front of us. If we do what we are doing, we focus on the opportunity at hand, even (or perhaps especially) if all we can do is sit in a jail cell, pray, think good thoughts, and treat our captors with civility and kindness.”4

Places of indecision, lack of clarity, and existential despair are terrifying places to be, but thankfully there are simple things we can do to begin grabbing ahold of our life and taking steps forward to an abundant life of meaning, intention, and significance.

It just takes practice.

Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Black Hills National Forest, SD

1This idea comes from David Benner’s book, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery

2The Gift of Being Yourself, 16

3God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will

4Walter Ciszek, SJ: Control the Controllables—by Focusing Your Energy Where It Counts, Chris Lowney


  • Jim Kasper

    July 23, 2015 at 10:19 am Reply

    Pilgrim, a very strong post. Excellent and practical tools here for the wandering soul.

    Also, do I recognize that guy on the right in the photo?

    • Quiet Pilgrim

      July 23, 2015 at 10:21 am Reply

      Thank you Jim! And yes, I’d imagine you would recognize that guy on the right in the photo. A shadow of your former self?

  • Stacy Moore

    August 3, 2015 at 12:19 pm Reply

    Oh, the Ignatian process of discernment looks so helpful. I hadn’t thought about the dreams/desolations/consolations in those terms before. Thank you!

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