Discernment and Risk-Taking

Genius: to know without having learned; to draw just conclusions from unknown premises; to discern the soul of things.

Ambrose Bierce

Most people go through life with varying degrees of flippancy, though flippancy does tend to recede as part of the aging process, through experience. But even as people agonize over the choices in their life, rarely do they do the necessary “work of depression” (to borrow a phrase from M. Scott Peck) that is required in order to discern between their options. Indeed the problem is not that we make the wrong judgments because we have failed to adequately weigh the perceived costs and benefits of a particular trade-off, but rather that we have failed to discern the characteristics of our options. To put it more simply, we do not question our own assumptions rigorously enough.

Because the decisions we make define our intentionality of becomingit behooves us to deeply examine the pathology of our spiritual laziness and its consequences in order that we might improve our discipline. There are four distinct malfunctions in our discernment process that frequently cause us to decline healthy risk-taking that would lead to our spiritual growth:

1. Taking Circumstances at Face Value

The deficiency in our intentionality easiest to recognize is one of the simplest and most basic forms of spiritual laziness: we simply look at how things are on the surface and assume that such observation is a good enough basis on which to form our conclusions. Yet as effortless as it is to recognize that we do this, we nevertheless do it with frequency. Whether we realize it or not, we go through our everyday lives putting labels to the people and things we encounter. Sets of labels are put into categories, and the sets of categories are then arranged in their temporal and ordinal relationships to each other and to ourselves. Once we have applied a label to something, we rarely, if ever, go back to it and reconsider the accuracy of the label.

This most commonly occurs with the people in our lives. The people with whom we surround ourselves, with whom we spend our time, define and shape us more than any other part of our human experience. Even the most obdurate person will be affected by the people around him. Our labeling system for people, then, must not only be meticulously construed, but the process in the case of each individual person we encounter must be exacting. Mislabeling a person as trustworthy who is not, simply because they have a positive affect, or mislabeling a malcontent as an enemy can have truly detrimental implications for our lives.

Consider how one would judge a situation where two business associates with whom one has only recently been conducting business have become at odds with each other. Initial impressions, which have already been translated into labels and categories, indicated that Bill is a smart guy, but maybe a bit eccentric, while Bob is a charming fellow, but perhaps not brilliant. We might be apt to side with Bob in a dispute because in spite of his lack of relative intelligence, he at least seemed to be level-headed, and his charm could cause us to at least think he is trustworthy. As circumstances unfold, our labels firmly in place, we ignore subtle hints that our initial impressions were potentially incorrect. Bob may turn out to have been a sociopath, his charm a weapon, and yet we would be blind to it until too late because we fail to challenge and re-challenge the presuppositions that are the foundation for our labels and categories and the process we utilize to apply them and organize them.

Nearly every decision we make involves and affects other people. A person may believe he is choosing one job offer or another, but in fact he is actually choosing with what people he will be spending the majority of his waking hours. These people will leave a durable, though not indelible imprint on him, and yet he is naively under the impression that he is picking between Salary & Benefits X and Salary & Benefits Y. Rarely does a job candidate consider which group of people will positively influence his spiritual and psychological growth so that he will become better equipped to advance, create, and produce during the rest of his active life. Failing to do so is another of the many instances of our willingness to take circumstances at face value and hinder our growth as a result.

2. Failing to Step Outside Our Cultural Milieu

Culture embeds itself in our psychological, spiritual, and emotional DNA. Throughout childhood, when we have yet to achieve a state of consciousness sufficient to develop our own intentionality in becoming (or where such faculties are still relatively weak and embryonic), our behavior, desires, perceptions of need, vision for our future, and expectations from others are almost rigidly defined by the cultural milieu into which we were born. Culture is a complex system developed over time and constantly evolving in most parts of the world, and every culture is filled with sub-cultures and peculiarities unique to its certain constituent sects and geographies the mere presence of which alters the other sub-cultures and the macro-culture as a whole. This deeply interconnected system that in the aggregate we call culture includes religion, philosophy, language, commerce, custom, food & drink, art & music, literature, fashion, sport, government & politics, education, race, and geography. Within each of these components there is an almost infinite subset of varieties and kinds. The complexity of culture indeed is the chief cause of our nearly continual failure to step outside of it, because to a certain extent it is an impossible task. The moment we have unmasked a belief and seen it to have been formed by our culture and not by actual reality, we will have founded that conclusion on other assumptions that are also a product of our culture.

While we cannot become cyborgs (and certainly we would not want to if we could) or even Vulcans who may by pure reason discern all of life unemotionally, almost clinically, our process of becoming requires us to be able to gain some level of objectivity and distance from our cultural context in order to decide what risks in life are worth taking. Our rich cultural heritage (no matter where we are from) is a valuable guide, but it is only one of many valuable guides, and when left to its own devices, it will almost universally tell us not to take risks that would separate us from the norms and expectations of our culture. In spite of its evolutionary traits, culture is above all else self-reinforcing.† In this sense, the sins of the father are revisited on generation after generation.

Each culture tells its participants that there are certain acceptable ways of organizing one’s life and in conducting one’s interactions with other people. Stepping outside of those norms necessarily, then, involves varying degrees of risk depending on how far outside of the norms one is stepping and the usual consequences for doing so in that particular culture. Certainly there are some cultural contexts in which that risk-taking could result in prison or even death, and unless one is setting out to be a martyr, the risk is not worth taking. This is why so many people feel the need to emigrate in order to become who they want to become. Unfortunately many people fail to acknowledge their truest inner desires precisely because of cultural oppression. They do not know what they want to become because their thought processes are so entrenched in their cultural trappings.

One of the most interesting evolutionary aspects of Culture’s self-reinforcing nature is the interplay between religion and cultural expectations. Certain cultural prejudices are often attributed to religion, and religion is used to effect sanctions against people who would stray from the culturally expected pathways. Religion’s most efficacious sanction is guilt, deployed forcefully against the heterodox to draw them back into line. Usually these tactics are perversions of the fundamental teachings of the religion (here the author admits his limited first-hand experience with religions other than Christianity, and so the present commentary will primarily limit itself to the various mainstream versions of Christianity in the West, namely Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Evangelical Protestantism, which which he has the most knowledge). Yet feelings of guilt and the fear of evoking those feelings can be an overwhelmingly powerful motivator and lead to untold quantities of illegitimate suffering. It requires strength of will and the intentional desire to grow in order for one to put aside such sanctions and categorize them for what they are: a culture’s attempt to enforce orthodoxy rather than a spiritual reality.

Indeed, within the context of Christianity, we find that Christ himself called his followers to a distinctly counter-cultural way of thinking and living. The orthopraxy of  Christ-imitation is at constant odds with the accepted orthodoxy in the Cultural Christendom of the post-Constantine West. It can be difficult to be a consistent Christian in Christendom. It can be all the more problematic to live consistently with one’s desire to grow with intentionality with the cultural pressures that disguise themselves as religious motivations ever present and ever enforced by family, friends, and co-workers.

Consequently, it is not merely the difficulty of going against the cultural grain that prevents us from taking risks that would be positive for our own growth, but it is rather that we might not even consider them as options–we might not even be aware of them–because of our cultural constraints, so embedded are its assumptions in our psyche.

3. Denying Reality

If we have persisted in our intentionality, having properly discerned the veracity or falsity of our assumptions, and having gained sufficient objectivity from our cultural milieu, we must then pass to our next hurdle in dispelling the misinformation that prevents us from taking risks that position us to grow and to become: our own recalcitrance in confronting things about ourselves that we know to be true but which are easier to ignore. Sometimes these are our character flaws or personality weaknesses that are holding us back that we do not want to admit because the work of getting rid of them is too great. Or perhaps it is that we see such traits as being similar to those possessed by somebody who we desperately want to avoid resembling, and so accepting them as being true of ourselves is too painful, too damaging to our self-esteem.

In other circumstances it may be that we refuse to accept the reality of our wants & needs. We may ignore the fact that we want something, even deeply (indeed, the deeper the desire, the more important it is for us to ignore it) but that the acquisition of which would require a great effort or tremendous risk (possibly a risk that would endanger our being accepted in our cultural milieu).  In cases where we are intentionally ignoring realities, we find ways to medicate or distract ourselves. Some people choose drugs & alcohol, others bury themselves in their work and hobbies to exhaust their waking faculties in order to effectively avoid confronting reality. We are rather remarkable creatures in our ability to lie to ourselves. But eventually, we will be confronted with our self-deception, sometimes in a painful and negative way, but often with an experience that brings us indescribable joy, but for our insistence that it is something other than it is.

Reality will always pry us away from our illusions, but it can take years–years that could have been spent growing rather than running away from it. We deny ourselves so many extraordinary experiences, both external and intrinsic, when we deny truth and avoid confronting difficult realities about ourselves and what we want, closing ourselves off from positive risks to extend ourselves and grow.

4. Inertia

If we have succeeded in overcoming the first three barriers to healthfully evaluating the benefits we might derive from taking reasonable risks toward our spiritual development, growth as a person, and overall happiness, then we will invariably be confronted by our most potent adversary, inertia. Where culture may be the preserver of the status quo in macro, inertia is its preserver in micro. Even deciding that we are going to take a risk toward positioning ourselves for growth is insufficient, because must also decide when to take that risk. Indeed, there might be particular timing that is more or less appropriate for taking perfectly healthy and positive risks, and knowing the difference between the two is an important part of the discernment process.

But inertia will always tell us “now is not the time, wait for better circumstances.” Perhaps it will convince us that we need more money, or that if we do it now we might cause somebody else some discomfort, or that we need to be more secure in some other sense before taking a risk. Sometimes it might try to tell us that our current situation is good enough and we need to wait until it deteriorates to warrant taking a new risk that might otherwise jeopardize it. Indeed, inertia is the only better deceiver than ourselves.


Our intentionality in becoming, in growing, is driven by our ability to cut through the main causes of its malfunction in order that we might succeed in our vocation. Discernment is essential at every stage of this process, but the process itself is also highly valuable, for in stripping away our assumptions and restraints, we learn more about ourselves, about others, and how to productively and positively exist in this world. It is something well worth the effort, the pain, and the “work of depression.”


† The one place in the world where this might not be the case is the United States of America, where the historical combination of Protestantism and the pioneering of new frontiers has created a culture unique in all the world, in all of human history, that despite its ills (and the present author is well aware of its many ills), calls its people to challenge and change it, to remake it anew each generation. The advent of global media, the internet, and international trade have effected a spread of the American culture, but it nevertheless remains foreign to most. Nevertheless, within the United States there are many sub-cultures that have the same characteristics as most other cultures. As a product of the American South, the present author can attest to the pervasive influence of religious and traditional expectations concerning many subjects. America’s diversity means that there are a number of sub-cultures (Mormonism, for example) with strong influences on its participants. The difference, however, between the sub-cultures in the United States and the national cultures in other countries is that American sub-cultures have the constant pressure of the external macro-culture that does indeed call people to individuate themselves and be their own person. This is what makes America such a fascinating case, since it is defined by a culture of competition, even within the context of culture itself. While this could be fodder for volumes, we will leave the subject as it is for the time being.