The Mandolin Dilemma

mandolin and cactus - photo by aslhndogan on Pexels

For a brief period of time, I took mandolin lessons under a tree.

I was living in Bolivia and had acquired a new mandolin and an interest in learning how to play. I can’t tell you how I came to know there was a teacher under a tree on the outskirts of Santa Cruz. All I know is that it took two buses, a bit of walking, and a lot of sweating to find him each week.

I eventually left Santa Cruz and then Bolivia all together, returning home to the Philadelphia suburbs. I was no mandolin aficionado (yet), but I could hold the thing, pluck at the strings, and keep them in tune. I kept playing around with it, watching videos and looking up chords for songs I liked. But eventually life got busy. That mandolin got put in a closet.

Until now. My girls found the instrument interesting, and I find myself in need of a hobby. So I began to research where a person takes mandolin lessons near my house. The immediate returns were bleak. Maybe I was meant to find a different hobby. But then my wife got involved, and suddenly there were options aplenty.

I reached out to one of the instructors. And I waited. And I waited. I reached out again. Yes! We do offer mandolin lessons! And then I waited some more. Each week that passed without a response made me wonder anew: Was I wasting my time trying to return to the mandolin? Maybe this wasn’t a thing that was meant to happen.

We played a slow game of e-mail tag—and to date, there is still no winner. I bring up this story not because it really matters whether I ever again play the mandolin. I bring it up because I think it illustrates how too many of us approach discernment.

How many of us wish for a sign when making decisions? If so-and-so does this, then I’ll do that… If I don’t hear back about this project, I’m not meant to do it…and so on. We look for external indicators to help us make internal choices.

Jesus scoffs at the scribes and Pharisees when they ask for a sign. He calls them evil and unfaithful and tells them they already got the sign of Jonah—and that like Jonah, Jesus himself would descend into the heart of things for three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:38–42)

Are there external signs that help us make decisions? Of course. New job openings become available, and new houses go on the market. But perhaps it’s wise not to stake our entire decision-making on these sorts of signs.

Rather, we look inward. We descend into the depths of ourselves. I return to my will-he-won’t-he mandolin dilemma. How easy it would be to say, “Well, it was a sign. I’m not meant to take up this instrument again; no one would even respond to my e-mails!” But what a silly sign that is.

The real question isn’t, Was there a sign? The questions are, Do I feel passionate about this possibility? What does the potential stir in me, and how do I feel called to respond?

That’s the real framing for any question of true discernment, about things that are far more important than whether I take up a string instrument—questions of relationship, vocation, and identity. Questions that shape our lives and our world.

Photo by aslhndogan on Pexels.


  1. I loved the mandolin story, for it inspires me, nudges a spark within me,that I can’t tell.Also reminds me of the Alchemist book by Paulo Coelho:) Most of us may have a Mandolin story to write about & enlighten ourselves & others too. I love the choice of words & your expressions mentioned by readers too. Keep writing to inspire & invigorate your community-US:) Thankyou kindly : from Beautiful BC

  2. Thanks Eric. Simply brilliant. “Do I feel passionate about this possibility? What does the potential stir in me, and how do I feel called to respond?” – And if there was a sign too, not acting would be a huge burden to bear.

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I, too, have a “mandolin” story. Only mine was a banjo bought in a pawn shop on Beale St. in Memphis back in 1964. The thing sat in a closet until our oldest daughter was about ten. She found it, took lessons and also learned to play bass and guitar. Today, she is a full-time musician playing vintage music on the West Coast.

    Moral: Sometimes, the little side-trips we take may really be for someone else.

  4. Great parable and message! Thank you.
    I have found that sometimes we are drawn to something that catches our heart and spirit, we pursue it only to find out that it may (or may not) be within our ability to do. Life moves on. And yet, that joy that touched our soul so many years ago may be another daily reminder of the beauty grace, and hope- that encourages us to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
    The mandolin may be a talisman of Joy encouraging us to embrace God’s mystery of Grace bestowed on each of us. The mandolin is a beautiful story of your life’s journey to South America which I’m sure your daughters would love to hear. Who knows whether you or your daughters will finally connect with the musical mentor you have sought for so long?
    Maybe the mandolin and the grace-filled journey it reminds you of should be in the living room:)

  5. i bought a cheap guitar when I stopped smoking 11 years ago. Something to do with my hands??? I still can’t play it, truth be told, I never really put the effort into it BUT it did “look good” and when I clean the bedroom where it sits on top of a wardrobe, I pluck the strings. 🙂

    I must have been meant to buy it – for the price of a packet of cigarettes, my now 15 year old granddaughter plays it instead. 🙂

    I, too, like all your stories and share them with my husband. Thank you for the “lesson”.

  6. I enjoy every story you tell. This one has a poignant point. We’ll taken. Thank you.
    p.s. Are you passionate about playing the mandolin? I’m waiting for the end of your story.
    Thanks for your good sharing.


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