Some problems can’t be solved by more thinking. ~Sam Harris
Where do you turn when you need help making an important decision, one that involves changing your job, your relationship or where you live? According to Kevin O’Brien, author of The Ignatian Adventure, the best advice come from a man who lived 500 years ago.
O’Brien writes that Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit religious order in 1540, was known as a master in the art of spiritual direction. Ignatius collected his thoughts, insights and prayers in a book titled Spiritual Exercises, and O’Brien tells us that his guidance on making any important life decision is as relevant today as it was back then.
Ignatius advises us that the key to making any difficult decision is not to ask “what do I want?” but to ask “what is God’s desire for me?” He tells us that God wants each of us to have a “meaningful and joyful life” and that when faced with a tough decision, we shouldn’t rush to find the answer, but should “wait on God.” His thinking goes like this:
Since we are created in the image of God, and “God is present to us at the deepest core of our being,” we can therefore determine God’s will by looking deep within ourselves.
In Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius described three possible scenarios related to making an important decision and the different ways the process can pan out. They are:
Decisions made with total clarity. This is the easy, no-doubt-about-it decision. In this case, God shows you the course to follow with such decisiveness that you have complete confidence you are making the right call.
Decisions that lack total clarity. In this scenario, you are in a constant state of indecision, veering between certainty and doubt. One moment you’re a yes, the next you’re a no. O’Brien advises us to “choose or commit out of experiences of authentic spiritual consolation,” or in other words, dig deep to try and determine which way God is directing you.
Decisions where you experience no strong feeling one way or the other. This is the place a lot of us find ourselves when making a tough decision—on the fence with no clear leanings one way or the other. In the case, we should “first pray for the guidance of the Spirit” and then take the following actions:
- Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your decision (it may help to write them down)
- Consider what advice you would give someone else considering the same choice
- Imagine you are on your deathbed (which puts everything in perspective) and consider which choice you would want to have made
- Try walking around for a day pretending you made the decision to see how it feels
After making a decision, Ignatius asks us to pray for confirmation. Wait and see if anything comes up that makes you seriously question your decision—or gives you increased confidence that you have made the right choice. It’s important to note, there’s no set time frame as to when this confirmation will come so be patient.
When all else fails, go with your gut.
This is the advice I have given my own daughter for years. Your gut, your first instinct, is almost always your best option. Our over-thinking minds often get in the way of our decisions, analyzing our potential options ad nauseum to the point of decision-making paralysis. Unless the mind has come up with a very good, logical reason to change your decision, it may be best to leave it on the sideline. Our first instinct is usually the best.
What about when you have to make a decision with no good choices. Then what?
Sometimes you’re forced to make a decision between two less than perfect options. In that situation, here’s the advice from my go-to spiritual philosopher, John Templeton:
If it seems necessary to do something you don’t like, ask yourself: “Is there another way to accomplish this task that might work better for me? What alternatives do I have now or in the future.” You have much more power over your life than you may realize.
In other words, if you find yourself choosing between two unattractive options, stop and consider: is there a third way that you may have overlooked? When you open your mind and heart in contemplation, you may discover that there is a better option than the ones you’re now considering.
If you are forced to make a decision with no good options, for instance deciding between two less than ideal job prospects because you have bills to pay, see #3 from Ignatius above. Then, per John Templeton, look for “alternatives…in the future.” Take the initiatives necessary to make change happen down the road.