The Lost Art of Discernment

I smiled at the face on my computer’s screen — a MySpace profile pic of a Christian boy with bright eyes and a bass guitar.

He was 21 and part of a band made up of a handful of my friends. I was 19 and had seen enough to come to a quick conclusion:

I should date him.

We texted and talked, and felt tethered to each other before we ever met face to face. I chose him, and he chose me, and we forged onward, determined to share life without discerning whether we should.

This is because discernment is a lost art. We cross paths with a person whose gaze raises our heart rate, whose humor gets us every time, or who gets us. We are physically attracted to him or her, and mentally distracted by his or her presence (or absence). We decide with haste to date him or her based mostly (if not solely) on what we feel when we first meet, without acknowledging dating’s purpose: to discern marriage.

The result? We aim in dating to maintain the warm, fuzzy feelings that brought us together. We date without discerning. But discernment is an art we can bring back, if we ask important questions while we date, including but not limited to these:

Do I know the truth about this person? In his brilliant book Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II wrote that “feelings arise spontaneously – the attraction which one person feels towards another often begins suddenly and unexpectedly – but this reaction is in effect ‘blind.’ Where the feelings are functioning naturally, they are not concerned with the truth about their object. … And this is just where emotional-affective reactions often tend to distort or falsify attractions: through their prism, values which are not really present at all may be discerned in a person. … This is why in any attraction – and indeed, here above all – the question of the truth about the person towards whom it is felt is so important.” I decided to date the bassist based on spontaneous feelings, and I focused on keeping them strong instead of on discovering who he was.Through the prism of feelings, I could justify his decision not to tell his parents about our relationship. I could rationalize his decision not to demote his “ex-girlfriend” from her first place position in his MySpace “Top 8.”

Do I actually like this person? In dating relationships in which I’ve been committed to discovering the truth, I have learned more than once that I don’t like this guy. The charming one, who turned out to be a narcissist. The funny one, who turned out to be immature. The other funny one, who turned out to be to local strip clubs what Sam Malone was to Cheers. Some of us — like I, in the relationship with the bassist — forge onward regardless of whether what we learn means we don’t like a person, because we don’t pause long enough to notice that we don’t. Others are pressured (from within or from without) to work on relationships not actually worth their time. But our commitment in dating is not until death. It’s until we’ve discerned that we shouldn’t get married.

Does the world need a kid who’ll grow up and turn into one of us? If you wouldn’t want your child to turn into you or the person you’re dating, you ought to ask another question: Why not? In the answer, you’re likely to find important evidence: not that you or he or she should never procreate, but that you (or he or she) is currently more open to maintaining a status quo than to growing, that one is a reckless decision-maker, or a self-absorbed ignorer of surroundings — that one isn’t yet prepared for marriage. And that requires us to ask this question: is a person who is unprepared for marriage a person who should date? If not — and I’d say not — we have used the art of discernment to determine what we ought to do next.

What other questions should dating adults ask as part of the art of discernment?

The Lost Arts is a series inspired by arts too often abandoned — arts that, when practiced, make relationships of all kinds better. Want to suggest a lost art for a future post? Leave it in the comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Joe

    This is an awesome article!! I loved it!

    But, are you saying that you should discern a person only objectively? Isn’t the body good?
    Aren’t your feelings and desires also God given?

    Isn’t discernment supposed to be a combined decision of the mind, heart, body and soul?

    For, cannot the body speak a different language from the mind?
    Ex: Where there is no physical attraction between the man and the woman.

    https://uno.flocknote.com/note/227024

    • Arleen

      Of course there needs to be physical attraction. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about not stopping at physical attraction, about applying all the factors you’ve listed — mind, body, heart, soul — rather than just body or heart, which in my observation and experience, is what a lot of people do.

      • Joe

        Thank you for clarifying and taking the time to reply.

        Just wanted to ensure that whoever reads this does not get the impression that one should negate one’s feelings while discerning. They too are a factor in the art of discernment.

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