How We Discern, Part 2: Indifference and Freedom

Whether we’re discerning between alternatives or just discerning a way forward, whatever it’s about, the first thing is always to keep the first thing the first thing. That’s our initial step of identifying our principle and foundation (p&f), or, the big ultimate “why”—as in, “Why does it matter that we discern this well?”—or the big ultimate “what”—as in, “What do we want beneath everything else?” St Ignatius of Loyola identifies this as the core human vocation: to praise and serve Gød. You might personalize it further. Either way, we’re not done with Step One simply by identifying our p&f. We need to make it our p&f actually. That’s where a concept called “indifference” comes in, but it bears explanation.

The whole reason we dig to the root of a p&f is that we’re filled with many different desires, often competing, and influenced from many different directions, often confusing. Once you buy into it, your p&f is your bedrock conviction when things start to feel slippery or confusing later. But for that to happen, the p&f has to be above every other consideration. In other words, if every other desire can go head-to-head against another to discover which is the most important to you, your desire to fulfill your p&f has to be set up to win 100% of the time.

Imagine that you’re a queen or a king. You’re surrounded by dozens of advisors in your court—some on foreign policy, some on industry or education, some in your inner circle and some more distant. Then there is your most trusted advisor, your closest friend in your inner circle, and an expert in the policies that are nearest to your own mind and heart. You listen carefully to all your advisors—but you always measure their advice against that other wisdom and echo of your own heart: the voice of your most-intimate advisor. This is your p&f.

How does your p&f prevail over every consideration? And how does your most-trusted advisor win over every other voice? We have to be indifferent to every other matter.

What Is Indifference?

To be “indifferent” in the sense meant by Ignatian spirituality is simply to be equally disposed, or, equally inclined. In this sense it’s different from what we usually mean by “indifference” in conversation: being apathetic or uninterested. We might say that a selfish person is indifferent about other people’s troubles. What we mean here, however, is that we’re not biased in one direction or another or attached necessarily to any one thing. We’re indifferent between which piece of cake we get, because we’ll be happy either way; if we’re too strongly attached to the idea of getting a coveted corner piece, we risk not enjoying quite as much as we could the delicious edge middle slice we’re handed at a party.

Another great word for this concept is equanimity, the definition of which is “evenness of mind.” The image here is a set of scales set in perfect balance—no thumb placed on either side. And this image is especially helpful, because you can think of these as the scales you’ll use to weigh out your options in your discernment process. If they start out skewed because you’re attached to some value or set on some path, you can expect a lopsided process and a doubtful outcome.

Of course, finding and holding this indifference isn’t necessarily easy. On the one hand, without carefully examining ourselves, we can end up hiding little biases within ourselves. On the other, instead of being equally disposed toward either alternative, we can end up leaning away from the options altogether with our hands thrown up in a defeated “I don’t know” or “what does it matter?” So we want to be careful about what our disposition is. We want it to be both balanced and positively inclined to our p&f of following Jesus and serving Gød.

Two Dispositions

Ignatius talks about two dispositions we want to consider taking before we launch out into our discernment: the necessary disposition and the helpful disposition.

1. The Necessary Disposition

The “necessary disposition” is, in one sense, simply the picture of the scales in balance. Ignatius puts it like this:

“I should be like a balance at equilibrium, ready to follow whatever I perceive to be more for the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.”

But I think there’s some key language to draw out of this statement in order to really get behind the necessary disposition.

First, notice Ignatius says (granting the English translation), “whatever.” I think this betrays a critical openness. At this point, we don’t carry any assumptions about what will serve Gød more. If we do, and if we weigh out the choice between, say, attending seminary and taking a position at a bank, we might erroneously fail to imagine that working at a bank could more to Gød’s glory than pursuing full-time ministry; we might neglect the possibility that living in that city, working in that neighborhood, meeting the people at the coffee shop next door to that bank, and things we could not immediately account for, might all be Gød’s greater glory somehow. Weighing out these possibilities isn’t the task yet but, rather, being open to “whatever.” The point is that we acknowledge that the potential of our service to Gød in our decisions is more than we can imagine.

Second, Ignatius encourages us to be ready to follow whatever we “perceive.” We have to understand, if only not to fall into disillusionment later or naivety at the outset, that this is a subjective process. This is a careful method, but it’s not an infallible, objective science. We’re not dealing with quantitative measurements but with sensations, inclinations, movements of peace and disquiet—sometimes very strong and clear, sometimes very subtle. Ultimately, we’re going to be paying attention to and having to trust what we perceive Gød’s will to be in us— what we perceive our own desires to be. So here’s the critical part: if our scales don’t start in balance, we can’t just subtract the difference later. If we don’t begin in a disposition of equilibrium, everything we perceive and conclude later will honestly, unfortunately, be suspect.

Finally, I want us to take note of the word “equilibrium,” because this is different from scales simply starting empty. A set of scales can be empty of weights and still be imbalanced. Imagine, for example, a flawed set of scales, where one weighing platform is made of thicker metal and the other thinner; set to zero, one side would fall below the other, and when weighing material, would falsely weigh it heavier on that side. Sorry to say, that can be us. Try as we might to enter into discernment openly, without our interior biases, we have them. So while this equilibrium isn’t easy, hopefully you’re beginning to see why it’s called the necessary disposition.

Finding the Necessary Disposition

When it comes to identifying what this starting equilibrium should look like, Ignatius provides us with an extraordinarily challenging—but helpful—measure:

“It’s necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we don’t necessarily want health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest.”

In other words, when it comes to cultivating indifference, “go big, or go home.” Ignatius gives a hard saying. Of course we would rather be healthy rather than sick! We would rather be well-regarded than humiliated. At the same time, we might be able to see the importance of what Ignatius is saying. Can we really say, like Peter, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ (Lk 22:33) if our unspoken caveat is that we don’t want to be poor; we don’t want to risk our health; we don’t want to lose our friends. The more of these interior reservations we have, the less internally free we are to choose “whatever.”

To that end, we can test ourselves at the outset of discernment by asking, “Would I just be as OK if my family thought I was an idiot for making this decision as if they supported me?” “Would I be just as OK I fell flat on my face after taking this step in faith as if I was tremendously successful? And so on. Now, this is not easy! But here is where we already begin in prayer. We ask Gød for the grace to desire “whatever.” We askGød to remove our attachments to certain outcomes and desires like affirmation, financial security, a free schedule, any particular relationship. We ask Gød for the freedom to desire and to choose “whatever.”

But that’s not all, Ignatius also suggests that we compensate for our skewed scales. If we feel like we can’t help but desire financial security more than poverty, then we should pray that Gød specifically increase our desire for poverty. If we pull back at the thought of being thought of as a failure (I speak personally), we ought to pray to desire humiliations. Take note, though, that the point isn’t to pray for poverty and humility; what’s at issue isn’t our circumstances but our will. We want Gød’s help to shape our will going into discernment. As Ignatius explains, “If you wish to straighten a slender green branch, you bend it in the opposite direction so that remaining midway between the two, it will be straight.”

2. The Helpful Disposition

For this reason, we can go further than simply setting the scales to balance. And Ignatius suggests that this will actually be helpful, even if it’s not necessary. The “helpful disposition” occurs when we have a positive inclination of the heart toward the poverty and humility of Christ. And this is something we add to the “necessary disposition” if we add it at all.

But doesn’t this just put the thumb on a different side of the scale? Aren’t we just negating the idea of balance we just set up with the “necessary disposition”? Yes and no. Again, first, we should remember that we’re not praying for outcomes right now; we’re not praying about our circumstances but about our will. We’re not asking that Gød make us poor and humble like Christ—thought not a bad thing if we did—but that Gød help us to be drawn to Christ’s own poverty and humiliation so that we’re free to choose any path that bears their resemblance without hindrance, without internal resistance, and so that if we do take such a path we would do so out of love above every other motivation.

Further, remember that in the process of discernment we’re ultimately trusting that Gød loves us well and desires what is good for us specifically. If in considering the prospect of taking the “helpful disposition” we’re worried that Gød will call us to poverty (and, say, become a wandering Franciscan monk), that’s understandable on some level. But we’ll enjoy greater freedom in our process of discernment if we feel that we can trust that Gød won’t call us to a work we don’t truly desire and won’t let us stumble onto the wrong path in good faith. In other words, if you desire the poverty and humility of Christ but Gød gave you a brilliant mind for business and a desire to start gainful enterprises, you probably won’t be begging for bread, and your discernment will probably confirm that.

So, yes, we are placing our thumb on the scale with this second disposition—but only in a way that helps compensate for our own biased inclinations, helps us focus on our love for Jesus and trusts that Gød will lead us rightly in the end.

Indifference, Nonattachment, Interior Freedom

In the end, indifference is all about nonattachment, which means that it’s all about freedom. Attachments at the outset of our discernment—whether they’re to the status our current job gives us or to the idea of having a family—don’t merely make it harder for us to hear what might be Gød’s fulfilling call on our lives; they make us unfree. Think about what that feels like, to feel unfree.

Maybe it’s the feeling of compulsion choosing something for you that you don’t want to choose, like acting on an addiction. Maybe it’s the feeling of not having certain choices and being constrained to a limited number of false options, like choosing between an unhealthy relationship or being completely alone. I think of the image from Gulliver’s Travels of the miniature people of Lilliput binding the giant Gulliver to the ground with their hundreds of little ropes.

Of course, we don’t always realize that we’re unfree. We don’t often imagine the possibilities that we’re closed off to, that we feel are impossible to us or that Gød would never call us to. In beginning discernment, we become open to all possibilities and, in so doing, become confronted with

As you begin praying for a disposition of indifference and equanimity, where is it that you feel resistance? Where do you feel yourself pulled away from the thought of one path or possibility, and what do you feel yourself being pulled toward? How does it feel to be pulled in that direction? Does it feel encouraging, enlivening, filled with possibilities to be generous and filled with trust—or does it feel anxious, automatic, kind of icky? Pay attention to these sensations; these movements toward freedom and unfreedom will begin to help set the compass you’ll use as you discern Gød’s will operating in your own will.

Image cred:


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s