By Beth Dumey
In some forest preserves, a single trail winds around the perimeter, with a few minor paths jutting out. For the most part, you can see the circular route and feel comfort in knowing where it is leading.
Others have more complicated, multi-faceted trails. These involve a more rigorous hike. Not only in covering the terrain but also in assessing where it will lead and anticipating how far to walk to the next milestone. Maps may populate the park. Yet, it takes a keen inner compass to follow the path and avoid getting lost.
Several years ago, I attended a Christian retreat held in a rustic camp-like setting. It flanked a lake with cabins and playgrounds. Only a few of us signed up, so it was an intimate space for a shared experience. Before the retreat began, one of the leaders penned letters to each of us, including those she did not yet know. As she prayed through our individual messages, she wrote paragraphs that spoke to us about what was on our hearts.
Mine was eerily accurate. “My child, you are so weary from the many endless trails in your life.”
In one succinct sentence, she captured decades of my winding journey. I had hiked my share of footpaths that ran off into the wilderness. Those that dead-ended and others that went forward for miles, seemingly a clear road ahead, before suddenly veering off into the unknown. Mine was the more complicated trail.
I could blame it on praying for discernment earlier than I should have. I needed discernment to have the sense not to pray for it. Discernment can only be learned through scores of crossroads experiences. These intersections require assessing all of the options and seeking the optimal way forward. As a variant of wisdom, it seemed worthwhile to pursue. Yet the shadow side of it is the constant dilemmas that surface to strengthen this muscle.
These come in many forms: decision-making entangled with consequences; navigating values-violating situations; and seeking truth in ambivalence and uncertainty. In addition to these are the grander plot shifts of where to live, which job to take, church to attend, and the many other variables of life that appear.
It is drawn on when counseling others, providing feedback or determining motives. Discernment is what backs up intuition when someone is lying but you don’t yet have the evidence. It alerts you to the incongruence between the smile and the passive-aggressive behavior. It screams internally when the sweet talk is a mask for hidden maneuvering that is not in your best interest. Between the weighing and the corresponding action taken, we cultivate a notable ability to discern.
When I served in a counseling-related ministry several years ago, the leader told us what he looked for in volunteers. More than simply life experience, he sought those who had encountered several significant crossroads in their lives. These individuals were the ones who could meet with people in crisis, help them sort through the complexities, and offer compassion through it.
If given the choice, though, the winding journey is not something we embrace. When selecting our potential futures, most of us opt out of the box including unending obstacles and meandering paths. All of which may or may not lead us to our desired destination. We would rather skip the stopover and take the direct route. When traveling, we often pay more for exactly that. And certainly, many individuals have lived a more straightforward trajectory, at least for a season.
But then, we meet a rare treasure. An individual who shares with us their most enriching stories, their greatest narrative arc, their highs and lows. Tales of growth that net out to an enviable perceptiveness. Generally, these folks have walked a few trails of their own. They mined a few paths that took them forward and many others that splintered off. They earned the depth of discernment to provide guidance that is neither self-involved nor superficial. They generously invite others into their wisdom. These are the esteemed blessings who speak life to us and are invaluable resources.
As for me, my discernment radar continues to develop, so the trails persist. The hike at times stretches far in front of me. Yet, the alternative, the fast track so to speak, is also not appealing. So, for now, I keep moving forward, less surprised by the next curve, eyes focused ahead, my internal compass spinning just a bit more tuned in as I find my way.
Beth Dumey writes on a variety of topics generally revealing insights, ironies, and perceptions. She hopes to help readers lean in, find truth, and leave better.