Discernment derives from the old Latin word cernere, to sift. I take great comfort in the insight that in some regards, discernment is about making gain through loss. Several years ago at All Saints, a small group of parents and children joined me in a reflection on discernment. I had put a few very pretty pieces of colored glass and lots of flour in a sieve. We took turns shaking the sieve as it made its way around the circle until all that was left were the four or five richly colored pieces. The exercise took several minutes and the reflection afterwards was a rewarding one: you have to shake forcefully but not so hard you make a mess. There really was no way to know what you would end up with until you had finished the sifting. We talked about the fact that the flour, now that it had been sifted, could be used to bake a cake; no one would have appreciated biting on a piece of colored glass if the glass had been left in with the flour. Someone asked which was more valuable, the flour or the pretty glass pieces. The contrast between those few beautiful pieces of shiny glass and the mounds of flour left on the plate was stunning.
That the word crisis also derives from cernere is new to me and oddly reassuring as well. I could accurately describe my life as being in crisis right now. Not all crises are highly dramatic nor do they unfold quickly. Certainly mine isn’t either of those. This midlife crisis—and I have decide that is what I’m in the midst of—has several components. One has to do with my girl.
All is not great with María. It is better than before, and her struggles are taking place in a far safer, healthier environment. But the struggle to maintain self control, to achieve her highest possible level of independence and function is brutally hard for María; progress is millimetric. Her ability to succeed at daily living still depends on an extraordinarily structured environment. María has not been able to internalize the kinds of behavior patterns that can keep her and those around her safe—at least not yet.
Many, many years ago, the psychiatrist who helped us get María on the medications that gave us a fighting chance as a family, suggested we place María in the type of residential program she now lives in. I was furious at his suggestion. I masked my fury in reasonableness and asked how that could help our child when it was precisely the fact that her first 5 years were spent in God-awful institutions that had so damaged her. Dr. Hughes gently and calmly explained that from his perspective this was about triage. The damage to María was real and so extensive that Maria threatened to shatter the whole edifice of our marriage, professional commitments and individual dreams. I am glad we were able to keep chaos at bay long enough to remain as a fairly intact family for several more years but in the end, he was absolutely right.
Now, as Sherod and I begin planning for the next step in our lives, I have to let go even more. When we’ve talked about things like timing, our starting point has been María. We had harbored the hope that if María got a few more years at BARC with all its structure and excellent care, she might be capable of moving into a less structured living situation—a group home, for example. If she could function in that environment, then we could make plans that would include bringing her with us as we moved away from South Florida.
A few weeks ago, at a conference with the behavior specialist who understands us best, she told us categorically that we could not make decisions about our future counting on any improvements of that magnitude from María. We need to plan for María to spend her life at BARC and we need to make the decisions that are best for Sherod and me without including the girl in our plan. This is what triage looks like for our family.
In a situation where triage is necessary, the option of suspended animation does not exist. The lie Sherod and I were telling ourselves was that we could postpone getting on with our own lives so María could catch up. It doesn’t work like that. Sorting out—truth and illusion, self and other, past and future; the sieving shakes me to the core.
In a faithful, intentional process of discernment, some of what slips through and out of your life is as insubstantial and tasteless as flour or cornstarch. And sometimes, it is beautiful, beloved, and of great value. You are heart broken to realize it no longer has the same place in your life. Sherod and I are being called to make decisions about our lives that more than likely will not allow us the privilege and joy of jumping in the car to see María for half an hour in the middle of a busy day. What seemed unimaginable before, that I would need to choose between the family quotidian-ness we’ve held on to, even with her living at BARC, and finding a place and life that is true to the rest of me is life and liberation I don’t much want to accept.
And yet, I must. I continue to make the arrangements to go on a 30-day silent retreat. The only time I took anywhere near that much time away from work was when I went on adoption leave to bring María home from México and get her settled with us. I took 3 weeks off then. But I am profoundly mindful that for this process of discernment to be about choosing life and not inadvertently allowing my soul to be crushed, it must include time set aside to walk and wrestle with the One who created and redeemed me, the only one who will be able to sustain me as I walk through what lies ahead.
God of the present moment.
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to me
as I wait in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make me the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring me courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
You are God, and we need you.