Treading Water and Making Decisions

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Often, when I have faced points of transition in my life, I have felt a sense of weariness, waiting for clarity as to where to go next. Unsure of which direction to take, I feel as though I am treading water at a fork in the river, stagnating as I wait for a clear call to move forward. It’s exhausting, but I don’t know what else to do—I am afraid of taking a turn in the wrong direction, so I end up staying right where I am, waiting for some kind of signal, some kind of peace about where to go.

When we find ourselves stuck in indecision, how do we figure out where to go? St. Ignatius of Loyola gives great advice on making good decisions in his Spiritual Exercises, with seven steps to follow:

  1. Ignatius suggests that we start the decision-making process by putting before our mind what it is we want to decide about….
  1. He then asks us to pray for the grace to “try to be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side” (Spiritual Exercises, [179]). In other words, we should try to the extent possible not to prefer one option to the other but only desire to do God’s will. To help us maintain focus and perspective, he asks us to keep the ultimate end and goal of our existence clearly before us.
  1. Then we pray for God to enlighten and move us to seek only what is most conducive to God’s service and praise.
  1. One suggestion Ignatius makes is to imagine a person we never met who seeks our help in how to respond to God’s call in the same decision we are considering. We then observe what advice we give this person and follow it ourselves. This is helpful since most of us are better at giving others advice than at figuring out what we should do.
  1. Another suggestion is that we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives either on our deathbed or after our death standing before Christ our Judge. How would we feel about our decision then? What would we say to Christ about the decision we have just made? We should choose now the course of action that would give us happiness and joy in looking back on it from our deathbed and in presenting it to Christ on the day of our judgment.
  1. When we do not experience inner clarity about the correct decision to be made, Ignatius suggests that we use our reason to weigh the matter carefully to attempt to come to a decision in line with our living out God’s will in our lives. To do this we should, bearing in mind our ultimate goal, list and weigh the advantages and disadvantages for us of the decision at hand…. We are then to consider which alternatives seem more reasonable and decide according to the more weighty motives—not from our selfish inclinations. Looking over our list of “pros” and “cons” for the decision at hand, we should notice if any of the reasons listed stand out from the others and why and see which way this might point us. This technique can help us move from inner confusion to greater clarity at least as to the issues that need to be attended to and help separate out which are more significant.
  1. Having come to a decision, we turn again to God and beg for signs of God’s confirmation that the decision is leading us toward God’s service and praise. The usual sign of this confirmation from God is an experience of peacefulness about the decision. The confirmed decision has a feeling of “rightness” about it, and we feel a sense of God’s presence, blessing, and love. This is a very important step, since the feeling of rightness, peace, and joy about a decision is a positive indicator that we have made the right decision whereas feelings of anxiety, heaviness, sadness, and darkness often indicate the opposite (Warren Sazama, S.J., “Some Ignatian principles for making prayerful decisions”).

It is easy to become distracted by the many pros and cons of each potential choice, but some reasons are more meaningful than others. The most important thing to do when we are mired in indecision is to pray. We need to quiet ourselves to listen to God’s voice, and then, when we have a reasonable sense of where we are called to go, we have to stop second-guessing and make a choice. Sometimes we will make mistakes, but mistakes can be corrected as long as we keep moving through them. Staying still and never moving anywhere would be the greatest mistake of all.

When I tread water and agonize over every bend in the river, I use up all my energy to stay afloat but don’t go anywhere. Instead, I could be floating upon the current of God’s love—resting as I let Him carry me where I need to go. Just as a current ebbs and flows, sometimes He will lessen the pull of His guidance, letting me choose where to go and helping me to take ownership of my own journey. But I don’t need to be overanxious about the choices I make, because He can always lead me back. Whatever decisions I make, He can use them to help me learn and grow as I move forward. I just need to be attentive to the gentle flow of His voice as I continue on my way. I don’t need to fight against the current, trying to do everything myself; I can work with the current, letting His guidance propel me onward to do His will.


Image: Winslow Homer, The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks / PD-US

Erin Cain

Erin Cain

Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City, drinking lots of Earl Grey tea, and attempting to grow in virtue and love. She writes at Work in Progress.

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