17 February

Exercises In Discernment: How We Choose To See The World

by Jon Katz
Judging The World

A good friend turned to me the other say – she is a student in my writing class –  and said : “I can’t bear to look at the world every day, the news is so awful and things are just falling apart. I am so horrified at what is happening to our country.”

A second student agreed:”I refuse to watch the news any longer.”

Even by the standards of today,  and despite the fact I hear this every day, I was startled by the strength of these statements and by the pain and sorrow in their faces.

I was silent for a moment – unusual for me  – and I could see she was looking at me closely, perhaps hoping for comfort or commiseration.

“I am sorry to disappoint you,” I said, “but I think we are seeing the world very differently. I know these are hard times for you, and for many people, and sometimes for me,  but I just don’t see what you are seeing. All around me, I see people awakening, caring, thinking paying attention, moving, full of passion and ideas, trying to do good. It is perhaps the most exhilarating time of my life, and it has been a gift to me in many ways. So many good things that I am doing in my life now have come about because of the troubles that are disheartening you.”

She looked at me for the longest time and said nothing. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that was what she wanted to hear.

For me, it is a matter of discernment, the ability to judge well, to see the world clearly, to seek spiritual guidance and understanding, the ability to see the truth, and not the common perception of the truth.

Is there anything more personal than truth? I think now, all of us are asking the same question: how should we see this world?

My friend has her ideas and I have mine, and we are both looking at the same world every day.

For me, discernment is a spiritual, not a political, practice. The people on the news do not get to define my peace of mind or spirituality. I am fighting in my own way. Many people define reality by what they see on the news every day. That is not my reality, only a fraction of it.

Certain signs are given to us a hundred times a day in daily life and we all struggle for answers to the questions they raise, from the news to the hate and anger that boils all around us.

When poems or books or music speaks to us in a special way, when the trees gins and creation reveals its glory, when a public or critical event seems loaded with meaning, then it’s time for me to pay attention to how I feel and think, to the true purposes to which they point.

Discernment for me is a way to read the signs and understand the messages.

I don’t run from the news, I explore it on my own terms, not theirs. But I never want to hide from the feelings and ideas of other people.

“Words stand between silence and silence,” wrote Merton in Thoughts In Solitude, ” between the silence of things and the silence of our own being. Between the silence of the world and the silence of God. When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.”

I do not believe our world, so full of challenges, is falling apart or is worse than it’s ever been. We have a lot of awful problems to face, we have always had awful problems to face. The challenge for me is how to face them. Despair but persevere.

I do not believe the daily news contains reality or defines my understanding of the world. The morning songbird in the big maples trees outside our bedroom window tells me so much more. History is perspective for me. I thought my students had lost perspective.

A few years ago, I read an essay on the rape of Rome by Attila the Hun.  I’ve read about the collapse of Greek Civilization, the birth of democracy. I’ve read about the horrors of Poland and Russia and Germany in World War II. I’ve read about our own bloody Civil War, and the genocides in Africa and Asia.

I’ve read about slavery, our own holocaust, and the violent divisions that have wracked our country since it’s birth and caused horrific suffering and slaughter. These stories make me tremble, sometimes cry, they do not drive me to despair. I am always uplifted by good that comes out in people, and their courage and commitment to one another.

My friend believes that evil people are tearing our democracy apart, but what I see are great numbers of young people, women, white and black and brown and yellow people, gay and transgender people gathering to protect our democracy and keep it intact.

Perhaps this is hubris, but I like to think I’m one of those people. I’m awoke, as they used to say, and I was once asleep.

Small acts of great kindness. Every day.

I don’t hide from the news or become a prisoner of it, but it is not my news,  and I am not bound by it, it can run me off. It reminds me to seek discernment in a better way.

My daily exercises for discernment in troubling times (in any times.)

.Be Alone For An Hour Each Day. Merton is correct for me, it is only in solitude that I can find the truth about me or the reality around me. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

. Peaceful Hour. I have come to cherish my peaceful hour, at the transitional time between day and night, when my world is still and there is the grounding feeling of chores and work done. When I look back If I want to feel peace, I have to build it into my life, not wait until the news announces it. In solitude I find true discernment.

. Talk To The Animals. They are our partners on the earth, they posses wisdom beyond our imagination or the scope of their “news.” “We need another wiser and perhaps a  more mystical concept of animals….For the animal shall not be measured by man…They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

And listen to them.

.Listen To The Trees: Love nature, and listen to it sing. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another and. There is no other land; there is no life but this,” he wrote. And this: “We need the tonic of wildness…we can never get enough of nature.”

. Make Your Own News, Live In Affirmation. Grandmas Moses had a point. Life is what you make of it, at any point, at any age. “This world – just as it is with all of its horror, all its darkness, all its brutality – is the golden lotus world of perfection. ” – An old Buddhist saying.

.Improve yourself. Do good whenever you can for as long as you can. Joseph Campbell cautioned against trying to save the world rather than accepting it.

This, he says, is like marrying someone in order to improve them. It makes us feel a little too superior.

In Henri Nouwen’s writing, he defines discernment as learning how to fight the demon. A good thing for me, a life-long demon chaser,  to know.


  1. For the first time in over a decade I went to new construction and saw English speaking Americans of every color working to build new homes. I was glad to see they had jobs again. When builders hired illegal immigrants they paid them less and didn’t have to pay FDIC on their wages. They were paid under the table. Many of the American craftsmen lost their jobs and then their homes. It was just before the big down turn it started. The builders made more money by cheating both the immigrants, the Americans and the government. I see the people that are sometimes incapable of being retrained for another job working again. I’m working again. I like that part a lot.

    1. Thanks Margaret, good to read and I appreciate it. The immigrants I work with are not taking anybody’s job and are here legally and work very hard to get educated, pay their taxes and join the mainstream of American life. I don’t know a one who is working in construction. I don’t doubt that what you say is true, but the broad brush – rapists, drug dealers, criminals, job-stealers – is just too broad for me. I am glad you are working.

  2. I counter balance the crazy with things such as The Optimist Daily: https://www.optimistdaily.com/. I also know that change and transformation come out of chaos. The book, Spontaneous Evolution, talks about this. And, then there are the indigenous and other old prophecies (such as the Hindu prophecy of the Kali Yuga evolving into the next age) that talk about a time of chaos leading to great change and enlightenment. Would I rather be living in the time of change and enlightenment? Sure, but I don’t. So, I do what I can do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Email SignupEmail Signup