Purpose, Discernment and T.S. Eliot

Purpose, Discernment and T.S. Eliot

“And what you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled if at all. Either you had no purpose or the purpose is beyond the end you figured and is altered in fulfillment.” (T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets). Has anybody encouraged you to follow your dreams, pursue your passion, go find yourself? It invites us to consider the idea that there is a single thing in life which you must do before you (and with all due respect to my Dutch friends) “pop your clogs”. But T.S. Eliot seems to be put the kibosh on this completely – he seems to say that we might be fooling ourselves with the idea of having a singular purpose, and, instead, that we have to accept that we should be accepting that our lot is not anything that we may know about. I know a bit about this, from the frustrations of my own training analysis. The purpose of a training analysis is to explore the idea that one might be a psychoanalyst. I have spent the last four years, lying on the analyst’s coach, busily studying my navel (some of the time) and considering the idea of vocation. A good part of this work has been struggling with the possibility that, in spite of my absolute best efforts, I might not be cut out for the work. Or that there is something else that I might need to be doing instead. It has proved to be a really difficult idea for me to accept that, after hundreds of hours of work, analaysis and supervision, that this mightn’t be for me. Thanks very much T.S. And then I thought to myself – let’s imagine that what Eliot says is true, that being an analyst might not be for me, but that my very best effort might be good enough for something else? I considered this question and I went to visit the person who generously provides me with spiritual guidance. He is a priest who lives in Mauritius and I have the privilege to meet with him every few years. I met with him in his beautiful garden in Mauritius last year and asked him what was required of me in order to be able to distinguish which of the possible alternative roads might be the correct one. As I sat in the garden drinking tea, he told me that the quality I required was one of ‘discernment’. Wikipedia will tell you that discernment is the “ability to obtain sharp perceptions or to judge well. In the case of judgement, discernment can be psychological, moral or aesthetic in nature. Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities.” What I have concluded is the following: that I give my 100% effort to the matter at hand, give it my best, and then meditate with a view to discerning. What I have found is that the best time to do this is when I am in the process of walking the dog up a sharp hill in the middle of a long walk, when I can think about nothing else except putting one foot in front of the other. Before I head up the hill, I bring to mind the matter which requires discerment and see what comes of my query once I get down to the top. It works, believe me. I return to T.S. Eliot now, and perhaps it’s easier to accept what he has to say when I add in the idea of discernment. He hastens us on with the process of exploration, in this emotional and perceptive quote from the same poem: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Inspired by Father Jacques Brown. Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

About the Author

Tom Conlon

I practise as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working within the code of ethics of the Association of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland (A.P.P.I.). I hold a First Class Honours M.Sc. Degree in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy at University College Dublin. I hold the Diploma in Group Work Practice awarded by the Irish Institute of Group Analysis (in association with UCD’s School of Psychotherapy). I’m an associate member of the Irish Group Analytic Society. I have a particular interest in the mental health of young adults and young offenders.

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