Discernment, a term from Catholic theology via Dr. Paul Schervish, is emerging as a key word in philanthropic planning or wealth coaching generally. Discernment is used to mean something like insight, virtue, wisdom, or excellence. Reading the materials produced by and for advisors teaching discernment shows the current level of oafishness, ignorance, and poor taste that sells well as discernment to America's Wealthiest. This raises certain issues.
Imagine a 2 x 2 grid for advisor and client, marked Lout and Saint. That is, four combinations:
- Advisor Saint/Client Lout
- Client Saint/Advisor Lout
- Client Lout/Advisor Lout
- Client Saint/Advisor Saint.
My sense is that #3 is where the money today is made; all faces are smiling. #1 is deadly dangerous. #4 is rare (a successful advisor and wealthy client both Saints?) #2 is promising since it would create a demand for less loutish advisors.
How we teach discernment to louts, aged 35-75 is a question much in doubt. Powerpoint and objective tests seem the most common methodology. Life Coaching is beginning to make inroads. But the best way would be to teach discernment through the liberal arts. Whether it is possible to teach, say, Robert Frost or Marcus Aurelius to financial, tax, and legal advisors is an open question. Give me the mic and a getaway car and I am willing to try, against my better judgement. And by the way make that a clown car!
Discernment dawns as rage, denial, uneasy laughter, and blossoms into shame, repetentance, and atonement. Here from a story called "Araby" by James Joyce is how a young man awakens to the first dull throb of discernment: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. Unless we begin in that spirit, moving beyond it falteringly and conscious of our own fraility, we are blind guides at best. Louts preaching wisdom to louts. (Another great short story by Joyce, in the same volume, is "The Dead," meaning the living.)