Discretion is Advised

The room smells of freshly-popped buttery popcorn as we put our feet up and settle into our spots on the couch. It’s the top of the hour on a Saturday night and we hope to find a movie to watch. Before a title appears on the screen, however, a warning banner pops up: Viewer discretion is advised. The words included with the cautionary signage describe the types of offenses we are likely to see or hear: coarse language or humor, violence, nudity… these descriptors varying depending on the movie. Some would call this ‘adult content’ or ‘mature content’.

With the warning comes a decision. Do we accept the terms and decide to watch this movie or do we change the channel and search for something more appropriate? There are no young children present, so the choice has different factors than it might for others. How did our plans for a relaxing evening at home just become a moral dilemma?

What is discretion anyway? Merriam-Webster says it’s “the ability to make responsible decisions” (‘responsible’ being a loaded word here). It’s “an individual choice or judgement.” But the movie warning doesn’t tell us how much coarse language there is. Maybe there’s an oath dropped once or twice during an especially trying time. How much violence is there? Does someone get punched in the face or does someone lose their head? What does nudity refer to? Do we see someone from the back or front? I don’t feel qualified to make a judgement with so little to go on.

The dictionary also includes the word ‘circumspection’ in its definition. I look up a definition of the definition to find this means being “careful to consider all circumstances and possible consequences.” What are the consequences of watching a movie with coarse language, violence and nudity? I might be offended. Once the words or images appear on the screen, I can’t unhear or unsee them. But that’s my choice. I was warned. I used my discretion to make the decision to watch it anyway. I have no grounds to complain about the offensiveness of the content.

There are many areas of our lives where discretion plays a role. We make decisions daily based on personal judgements. We cancel our picnic as we notice the dark clouds rolling in. We wear our masks to the grocery store even though it’s not mandatory. We stop to check the air in our tires because the ride seems a bit bumpy. Sometimes these choices seem obvious based on the situation. But other times, discretion is about choosing our words carefully. Do we use our words responsibly, considering the possible consequences?

A few years ago, my husband and I explored St. Thomas through a guided bus tour. The local guide was very informative, chatting as we traveled about his country’s history, culture, and way of life. His experience in the role came through in the smoothness of his speech and the timing of his anecdotes; to be able to point out the window at the exact moment to view something without having to interrupt a story. He was able to communicate well in many of the languages represented by the tourists, including English, French and Spanish.

The atmosphere in the air-conditioned coach bus was light, as it should be when on vacation, as we enjoyed the scenery and listened to his stories and knowledge of the area. We snapped blurry pictures through the tinted windows like everyone else.

The guide appeared friendly; smiling at people, joking with some, and welcoming questions. As he talked about their education system, he had my full attention. It’s always interesting to me as a teacher to learn about how schools operate in other countries.

“How many kids would typically be in a classroom?” I asked, thinking of my 30 students back home.

He looked at me with no smile and replied, “Kids? We call our little ones ‘children’, not ‘kids’. Kids are baby goats.”

He went on to answer my question about how many children might be in a class, but I’m not sure I heard the response. The information he gave is certainly not what I remember about that tour. My face burned with embarrassment as the bus went silent as a result of his tone. The Canadian teacher had been reprimanded for her inappropriateness and put in her place.

This was not a language issue or a cultural issue. The guide knew what I meant. I’m sure I was not the first tourist to ever call children kids. Was I the only one chosen to be taught a lesson?

Just behind his head attached to the bus wall was a sign reminding us to tip our guide well because his livelihood depended on our generosity. Yet, it seemed that he momentarily forgot discretion. He did not weigh the possible consequences of his reprimand – the likelihood of this mortified school teacher giving him a generous tip to thank him for pointing out her faux-pas; the possibility of souring her mood and ruining the experience for her and her party; the probability of this tourist writing a poor review of the excursion (although I did wait until today to review it on Val’s Stage where it won’t negatively impact the man’s business).

Teachers use discretion all the time, especially when writing legal documentation such as report cards. We refrain from stating “Johnny will make a masterful criminal with his propensity to steal, cheat, and lie,” cleverly spinning this observation into positive language such as “Johnny is an artful, creative storyteller who is resourceful and is able to effectively acquire materials to meet his needs.” Sometimes even hinting at positive growth in these areas in a more direct manner can propel parents to demand their child’s report card to be rewritten. Been there. Done that (as the one to do the rewriting…).

Whenever someone is able to use the phrase, “The truth hurts,” it probably means that discretion was not used by the speaker. (Unless the intention was to hurt.)

The book of Proverbs includes a lot of wise instruction including several directives about using discretion.

Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.

Proverbs 2:11

In many passages in the Bible where the word discretion is used, the words ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom’ appear as well. People who don’t use discretion are often described as foolish, rash or immodest. Proverbs 11:22 says that “a beautiful woman who lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.” That gold ring loses its value when it’s worn by a pig, just like a woman loses the value of her beauty if she makes poor moral choices.

When we look at current events in our world today, we have to consider how using discretion might affect the happenings. Just as police officers can decide whether to give a speeding ticket or a warning, they can decide whether or not to use their weapons (or extreme force) when pursuing suspects. World leaders use discretion (or not) as they open their economy. Should bars and strip clubs be allowed to open when the curve of the pandemic has not yet plateaued in their cities? Discretion used in hiring practices, pay scales, and compensation packages would consider the fair treatment of women and minority groups. Discretion used in words and actions might prevent accusations of racism and discrimination.

However, discretion requires pure motivations. Making a ‘responsible’ decision is arbitrary. On Val’s Stage, I’d like to think that as believers our hearts are aligned with God’s desire for humanity – that we love our neighbors and unselfishly put their interests before our own. It is from that perspective where discretion is most effective to make positive change – where the choices made will be ‘responsible’ and life-giving. I do wonder what that tour guide’s motivation was to call me on my flippant use of the word ‘kid’. I don’t feel like it came from a heart of love and goodwill.

A lot of tension and negativity in the world could be avoided if we just adopted a new warning in our social communications:


With their words, the godless destroy their friends, but knowledge will rescue the righteous.

Proverbs 11:9

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