February 2024 . . . .

“Discernment”

It occurs to me that I’m not particularly discerning. Or rather, that is, I’m not very discerning. For some reason, the very in that description is . . . very important. I can’t say why. I try to avoid cheap adjectives. And adverbs, although so far I seem to be either lying or failing.


I guess what I mean is, I don’t have a good explanation for why I like what I like, and why I don’t what I don’t. There’s not much food I don’t like, but if it tastes wrong to me, I don’t go back for seconds. That seems easy — too sweet, too sour, too salty, bland. I seem to follow the Albert Einstein theory of clothing: keep it simple. No decision fatigue here, only does it fit? Is it warm out, or cool? Clean? Pretty simple. Never “does it match?” or “is it in style?” See? A lack of a certain discernment.


OK, the expectation bar is set rather low for me in selecting things like peanut butters and baseball teams, shoes and haircuts. Perhaps this a perquisite of being my age. Or the sort of acceptance one has for an old family dog that occasionally breaks wind.


But what about writing? Prose and poetry. Literature. One would think that in my position, I ought to have some decision skills. Or at least some mystical credentials that are difficult to ignore. To what do we attribute his taste in books, stories, verse, and flash? Can we trust him to make good choices?


I suppose we’ll have to keep reading to find out.


Choice. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Life is almost all about choices. This or that. Work or play. What shall I focus on and what am I required, by lack of time, resources, or inclination, to let go? That is the big hammer called choice, not necessarily the fine-toothed comb called discernment. Yes, a terrible analogy, but we’re pressed for time.


To be clear — I am troubled by the definition of the word. Supposedly (that is, according to a couple of different online dictionaries) it either means to judge well, or perception in the absence of judgment, in a spiritual sense. And to this definition I apologize in advance but what the hell? Another flammable / inflammable thing? Give me a break. Some further digging suggests it derives from the Middle French of the early 1500s, meaning “to separate.” That makes a bit more sense to me. At a fork, we have to go down one road. Robert Frost insists that this is so. But his argument is, for that moment in his life, real or metaphorical, he is glad he took the one less marred by foot and vehicle traffic.


I hope that it is not a universal, because many times I have fallen back on what I call the Einsteinian theory of choice fatigue. I wear the same color socks and shoes every day. I wear blue jeans 90% of the time. I use the words “90% of the time” regularly, with no regard to the actual mathematics, when I am trying to make a point that something is fairly standard. I take my coffee the same way, every time. (There’s a very good reason for this — back in my NYC, three-piece-suit days, I got transferred cross-town. I came out of the subway at 47th Street and walked a handful of blocks to 909 Third. I queued at the same kiosk every morning, got two cups of regular with two sugars and a cheese Danish. Two bucks. Not bad, eh? After a few months, however, I found that as soon as they saw me — now a “regular” myself — my guys made my coffees while other people were standing patiently in line, and waved me up to the front, handed me my order, gave me a high-five and sent me on my way. It was the luxury of pre-ordering before there was even such a thing as smart-phones.)


In the end, you should and will read what you want to read. Or read what others tell you to. Or both. Writers, submit to the magazines you enjoy, or the ones that impress you, or that you think will impress others. But can we agree on one thing? Discernment is that thing we don’t always get to exercise. And to keep you from turning the page prematurely, returning this to the pile, or flipping it into the recycling, I will not belabor you with a cluster of examples, NPR-wise. You don’t need that. You’re a clever bunch.