Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Most Underrated Virtue: Discretion

I have wondered, sometimes, what makes the difference between the consistency of some lives and the wreck and ruin of others? Many times people from both sides are likable, intelligent, loving, and big-hearted. Why do good people seem to randomly succeed and others randomly fail?

There are probably a lot of factors that could be considered, but the one that I would like to focus on is the one that has recently become apparent to me. That particular thing is discretion.

Webster's dictionary describes discretion as "having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech." I would like to look first at the area of conduct, and then of speech.

I couldn't count the times that I've found myself making important decisions with only a reactionary rationale. Other times I find myself just "going with my gut." Both those things are, for obvious reasons, a very poor gauge by which to run a life--since life is only a series of decisions and their consequences.

It's judgment itself that has been devalued. "If it feels good do it." "Buy it! You deserve it." Even the packaging for the shoes on my feet send out the call to "Just Do It." And it goes beyond just advertising. When have you ever heard someone praised for their wisdom? Even character traits that are more valuable like integrity, faith, love, philanthropy, and others are quite obviously higher on the totem pole of virtues.

I like the simple method that Andy Stanley proposes in his book The Best Question Ever: before you act, ask yourself this question, "What is the wise thing for me to do, in light of my past experience, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams?" Though this subject has been on my mind long before I read this, Stanley's question is the most concise way to describe discreet conduct.

Concerning the area of discretion in speech, much of the same type of logic applies. Will I regret what I'm about to say? Who will it help or hurt? Is this how I would like someone to talk about me? I know that this is a tall order, but I see no other option for those who wish to exercise discretion.

Lastly, I would like to come against impulsive justification. Many would say, "If I'm gonna think it, I might as well say it!" or, "I'm gonna do what I want to do, regardless!" Allow me to disagree with this idea by taking this logic to an extreme. What if you really did say everything you thought? What if you always did what you really wanted to do? I think the consequences, when played out in our minds, are blatantly obvious. It's much better to use discretion.

I've seen a mass of people falling into traps due to lack of discretion over the course of my life. (If I look really, really close, I can see myself in that crowd.) Many times I think to myself, "With all you've been through and all you've seen, how could you make a decision like that?" The wisdom to make the discreet choice has been cast away for the immature and immediate.

A child may be likable. Maybe even friendly, loving, and even persistent. But a child has no discretion. Since the youngster's lack of experience excuses this, we don't think about it. I believe, however, that in the case of adults who should know better, it is time to start thinking about it. For both your sake and mine.

I will conclude by admitting that I have set for myself a "discretion trap" by running this blog. Writing on here easily becomes a mindless ramble. Even worse is the slow death of being unaware of how I sound to others. It is my webpage, but I never want to forget what I've heard often repeated: a little discretion goes a long way.

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