At the heart of the Second Week of the Exercises – is making an ‘election’ – i.e. answering the question how should I lead my life. This can be a formal election, e.g. shall I marry this person, shall I make this career change, shall I enter religious life, or an informal election – shall I recommit myself to my work, shall I tweak this or tweak that i.e. should we be more focused on the poor etc. The type and gravity of the election will dictate the time spent on it. We can learn a lot from this process about decision making in general, even the day to day decision we make about what we invest our time and energy in. What is brilliant about the exercises is that it creates the conditions of inner freedom and attentiveness that allow these decisions to be made on a sound footing.
Recent discoveries about how we make decisions – for good and for bad – are fascinating but also echo certain movements already there in the exercises, which perhaps explaining how Ignatian Spirituality is growing in popularity and seems so relevant to so many people. For instance the research of Nobel Prize winning Economist Daniel Kahneman is fascinating. Counter intuitively Kahneman points out how so much of decision making process is not – rational. For instance he talks about the difference between our remembering self and our experiencing self. For instance we may enjoy a wonderful holiday for 12 days and then something happens at the end, a big blow up row with a companion, a delay at the airport, an accident that ruins that last couple of days is what we remember. So ignoring our experiencing self ’12 days of happiness and relaxation’, we write the holiday off as a disaster. Worryingly Kahnemann says that it is our remembering self that makes future decisions.
Similarly when faced with a choice to make about the future, surprisingly maybe, fear seems to operate more effectively than hope. Specifically aversion to loss seems to operates much more strongly than the benefits that can accrue if we change. This is a significant barrier to inner freedom, and can tie us down to the past, and it works even more strongly at an institutional level than it does at an individual level. This ‘loss aversion’ – that the disadvantages of change loom larger than the advantages of change – and the significance of our remembering self explain why Ignatius puts such a premium on ‘magnanimity’ and generosity of spirit as we enter the Exercises. The disposition days are precisely to allow this inner freedom to grow before the retreat formally starts. Remembering with gratitude is particularly important, and a grace that we pray for, knowing that we cannot do it on our own.