“The false self is your psychological creation of yourself in space and time. It comes from your early conditioning, family, roles, education, mind, culture, and religion,” claims Richard Rohr in is daily meditation of August 24, 2013.
The minute we are born, leaving the most beloved and intimate place in the eternal love of God, we begin the process of developing the false self in the way Rohr identifies. This process is called socialization and is quite necessary for us to survive these few short years of breath before returning to the eternal embrace of God.
Unfortunately, we begin to believe more in the false self placed on us by societal expectations than in our true selves. Our true selves are that which is imprinted on our souls as God’s image and likeness. Over the years I have developed various selves, called personas, or masks, to play the roles I have been thrust into by the various socializing entities Rohr wrote about. They can be identified as: Clymer, son, Mennonite, class clown, U.S. American, professor, missionary, father, administrator, church elder, spiritual director, writer, just to name a few. Some of them are false selves and some are part of my true self.
Discernment is the process of distinguishing between our true self and the false selves we have created to be accepted by our peers. Henri Nouwen writes that discernment “is listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire” (Nouwen, 2013). Some of the roles I chose to play indeed reflected an alignment between my deepest desire and God’s desire. Most did not—I was doing what I was expected to do given my socialization.
Discernment involves at least four levels of discipline. I borrow them from Ronald Rolheiser’s list of the “nonnegotiable pillars of a healthy spirituality” in his book The Holy Longing. I will only write briefly about each one, because a much longer essay could be written on each one.
The first discipline of discernment is developing a contemplative prayer life. I say contemplative because most of our prayers are a wish list making demands on God. They become “the egocentric self deciding what it needs, but now, instead of just manipulating everybody else, it tries to manipulate God” (Rohr, 2013). This type of prayer comes from the false self. Contemplative prayer examines what is within the soul, discovering the true self.
The second discipline of discernment is to bring our doubts and yearnings to other people—preferably in a community of faith. Other people can more readily see the blind spots in our words and actions than we ourselves are able to do. When one’s relationship with another is deep enough where such give and take can happen, discernment is possible.
The third discipline for discernment is ministry or service to others. When we focus on the needs of others, we often encounter people and situations that resonate with our souls; that make us tingle all over—or other situations that do just the opposite. Listening to these areas of resonance or repulsion is discernment. So often when students go on a cross-cultural program, their secure socialized personas are stripped away and they discover callings that they never knew they had. This often happens in the context of service to others, or in relating to a totally different value system.
The last discipline for discernment is to have a mellow heart. We take ourselves far to seriously. We need to lighten up and laugh at the wrong turns we may have made.
Discernment isn’t easy. It is not the same as decision making. It is “sifting through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away” (Nouwen, 2013).