Great mood vs great decisions
“Don’t make decisions in desolation or elation.”
The teachers I got this advice from came from a Jesuitic tradition, and they attributed this advice to Ignatius himself, the founder of their order¹. I only looked this up ten years after building a life on this advice, and it turns out that’s not quite what he said or meant. Because this is my ramble blog, here follows the nerd dive into the original advice:
What Ignatius did say is that you should not make important decisions, especially those changing earlier resolutions, while in a state of “desolación”, which is described
[…] Darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad […].
The reason for this desolation is according to Ignatius that you’re not in contact with god and his eternal consolation, but you can just as well substitute any other spiritual entity. More specifically, you can substitute yourself and your body and emotions – because when you’re not in touch with your needs and feelings, you will encounter this state, and the advice applies regardless of your relationship with religion.
His advice, then, is this:
In time of desolation we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision to which we adhered in the preceding consolation. […] Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves.
Take out the religion, and Ignatius argues that you made decisions in a good frame of mind, and going back on them while you’re not in touch with yourself and while you’re not in a stable state would be bad. Instead, you should either try and get out of your “desolation”, or actively lean into the decisions you’re considering to change, to remind yourself of the importance they had for you.
I think this is generally good advice, with two big “yes, and”s.
First off, I think it’s important to include exuberant good moods too, explicitly, as my teachers did when telling me about this rule. It’s tempting to argue that Ignatius intended this reading: You could say that obviously intense positive feelings also belong to a state of desolation, because you’re not in a zen/meditative state, and thus not in touch with Ignatius’s consolation.
I think that’s a fairly terrible argument, because it attaches a negative ethical value to exuberant joy and bliss, and … don’t do that! Enjoy the good moods as they come without feeling bad for them. Instead, look at it like this: While you’re experiencing strong or extreme emotions, you’re worse at generating other emotions, because you’re quite occupied. But any decision you make will apply to you in different emotional states, and if you’re not taking that into consideration, you’re going to have a bad time. A good example for this is when you feel elated and energetic and start to take on responsibilities or make a ton of plans, because you don’t bother to consider that future you may not feel as good as you do, and will require downtime.
The other caveat is that sometimes it’s necessary and good to go against past decisions. There’s no need to make a bad situation worse purely because you made a decision in the past, and have decided that being stubborn is more valuable than reducing or avoiding suffering. Of course, the tricky thing is to know when this situation applies. When you feel terrible and want to stop doing something Past You has started, or if you feel great and want to go all-in on something exciting – you’ll always going to feel that this is urgent and you are very justified.
My rule of thumb here is this: The more I have considered my current situation when making my past decision, the more reluctant I will be to make a conflicting decision. That is, if I have decided to go for a run twice a week, and then I don’t want to go for some reason: If that reason was something I have considered when making my past decision, I’m much more likely to keep to that decision. If I made a low-effort decision to exercise more, and then I feel lazy and not like moving, it’s fairly likely that I won’t do any exercise. If I have thought about this state during my decision and considered how to handle it (either “do it anyways” or “it’s fine, it’s not important enough to push yourself”), there’s a fairly high chance that I will adhere to my past decision, even if I grumble a lot.
A positive side effect is that this model of decision-making trains you to consider your possible future emotions in your decision-making. In my experience, if you respect Future You like that, Current You will also respect the decisions made by Past You.
All things considered, I think this is a useful guideline to integrate into everyday decision-making. It’s more intuitive advice for negative emotions, and very helpful in lots of situations, as long as you don’t make it an absolute rule (because absolute rules suck).
¹ The Jesuits are Christian monks belonging to the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500s.