“The better part of valour is discretion” (William Shakespeare).
THE WORDS “DISCREET” AND “DISCRETE” HAVE AN INTERESTING LINK. Both come from a Latin verb meaning “to separate.” Two things that are “discrete” are separate or distinct from one another, but to be “discreet” means to show prudence or self-restraint. What, then, does “discretion” have to do with “separation”? Well, to be discreet one has to separate the situations where a word or deed would be appropriate from the situations where they would not be. If there is “a time to keep quiet and a time to speak out” (Book of Ecclesiastes), discretion is the ability to distinguish between the two wisely.
In these days of unrestrained verbiage (particularly in our digital media), the concept of thinking something without saying it appears downright old-fashioned. Yet the trait of discretion has not lost its value. As the saying goes, “Much that may be thought cannot wisely be said.” By indiscretion in our words, much harm is being done to our relationships, and I would suggest even to our culture.
But discretion doesn’t just apply to our words; it should also govern our actions. Discretion is, in Shakespeare’s well-known words, “the better part of valour.” That statement is no exaggeration. It often takes more courage to hold back our impulses than to give in to them. What is needed in life is not merely strength — but rather strength under control, guided and disciplined by discretion.
Leaders, especially, need discretion. Without it, they often make disastrous decisions, ruining themselves and hurting those they lead. “Great ability without discretion comes almost invariably to a tragic end” (Leon Gambetta). And unfortunately, many arrive at leadership lacking this qualification. “One can pass on responsibility, but not the discretion that goes with it” (Benvenuto Cellini).
Discretion is not only for leaders, however. “Only discretion allows intimacy, which depends on shared reticence, on what is not said — unsolvable things that would leave the other person ill at ease” (Hector Bianciotti). So let’s learn, even in private, when not to speak.
“Four things are the property of friendship: love, affection, security, and joy. And four things must be tested in friendship: faith, intention, discretion, and patience” (Aelred of Rievaulx).