In Practicing Peace, author Catherine Whitmire talks about discernment, which she describes as the Quaker practice of determining which inner nudges come from a higher power, as opposed to those that come from anxiety, ego, etc. The problems of the world are so overwhelming, she says, and God does not ask any one of us to tackle them all.

Reading this, I was struck by the similarity to what Rev. Carlton Pearson said when he was interviewed on This American Life. He had been a Pentecostal minister but lost his following when he stopped believing in Hell. Pearson described feeling overwhelmed by the number of people who needed help, who needed to be saved. He described prayerfully asking God how he could really be expected to reach all those people. He said God answered by asking him if he really believed that He would let all those “unreached” people burn in hell. Pearson found he didn’t believe that at all. After that, it’s fair to say his life, his ministry, and his beliefs were completely rearranged.

Learning discernment is the beginning of the end for the ego-centered self. When ego-thinking is dominant, the pattern I most easily recognize in my own thinking is believing I know what the possibilities are in a given situation. My ego-mind begins to strategize right away. It says, either this will happen, or this, and it suggests that the outcome is up to me, that it’s just a matter of determining which outcome I want to invest in. In truth, the outcome is rarely up to me, and there are almost always more possibilities than I ever knew existed.

It’s uncomfortable, sometimes, to learn discernment. It causes the tower of the ego to fall. It lets us know we aren’t actually in charge much of the time. But once it’s over and the tower has fallen, it feels awfully good to be standing on solid ground.