[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Recently, I have come to realize in a powerful way just how much I do not understand. It has dawned on me that as much as I thought I had it all together, the truth is that left to my own devices, I’m utterly clueless when it comes to things that really matter. But while this is a sobering realization, in the end it is good news because it is giving me the incentive I need to turn my life over to Someone Who does understand: the Holy Spirit.
The catalyst for these thoughts has been my relationship with Patricia. All in all, things are going wonderfully well for us. We love each other dearly, feel deeply committed to a shared vision, have a great deal in common, and our communication is usually very good. Both of us are very happy with our life together here in Xalapa.
But we have found that every now and then, we say and do things that totally mystify each other. And as we’ve tried to clear up the confusion together, we’ve discovered that in some areas of life, we think in fundamentally different ways. Because of this, even though our conscious intentions are usually good, we’ll inadvertently step on each other’s toes. One of us will get upset with the other, and the other will say, “What just happened?”
When we talk about what happened, we usually find that the upset is based on a simple misunderstanding rooted in our very different mindsets. We eventually work things out, and then all is well. But this has got me wondering: If at times I can so completely misunderstand someone whom I love and who is so compatible with me, how much more am I misunderstanding other people every day? And how much more are people in general misunderstanding each other, especially when they are far more different than Patricia and I are? How much more are people misunderstanding each other in cases where they not only don’t love each other the way Patricia and I do, but may even hate each other?
It’s a disquieting thought. But I’m reminded of it every day, because living in Mexico without fluent Spanish has made misunderstanding a regular occurrence for me. Sometimes this has humorous results. In my first weeks in Mexico, I would frustrate taxi drivers by telling them to go “derecho” (which means “straight ahead”) while simultaneously pointing to a right turn (which is “derecha” — the word I should have said). You’ve never seen so many guys throw up their hands.
This is, of course, a trivial, easily correctable, and therefore amusing misunderstanding. But what about situations that aren’t so trivial? How much more am I missing that I’m not aware of, and how much more are all of us missing? Again, if so much misunderstanding occurs with even the best of efforts and intentions, how much more misunderstanding is happening when we aren’t trying so hard and our intentions are not so good?
I think there is only one answer: All of us are misunderstanding quite a bit. The Course, in fact, tells us that our fundamental lack of understanding goes far deeper than we realize. We don’t just misunderstand differing communication styles or foreign languages. Instead, because we have identified with the ego and are therefore willfully denying the truth of who we are, in and of ourselves we don’t really understand anything.
Okay, a qualifier: We do understand lots of things on a superficial level. For example, as Lesson 25 says, we understand that a telephone is for communication at a distance. But even when we do understand things in this way, we don’t know what things truly mean, what purpose they serve in God’s plan for salvation, hence the title of Lesson 25: “I do not know what anything is for.”
Moreover, while we think we have a good basic understanding of who we are and what the world is, in fact we profoundly misunderstand even the most basic matters of existence. At one point, the Course has us say:
I do not know the thing I am, and therefore do not know what I am doing, where I am, or how to look upon the world or on myself. (T-31.V.17:7)
Ouch. As I said, my recent experiences have brought this lack of understanding home to me in a powerful way. If we misunderstand everything so completely, what hope is there, especially when it comes to the big and seemingly incredibly complex problems we seem to face? If even the most loving relationships between conscientious, relatively self-aware people run into upsetting misunderstandings, how can there be a resolution to rising violence in Mexico, or to the world’s economic crisis, or to the conflict in the Middle East?
It seems to me that there is only one answer: We have to turn to a wisdom greater than our own, Someone beyond the echo chamber of our own minds, Someone in us Who really does understand everything. There are many names for this Someone throughout the world, but in Course terminology, this is of course the Holy Spirit.
I know it’s hardly a great revelation to say that we need to listen to the Holy Spirit; this is Course 101. But what’s impressing itself upon me right now is just how much we really need guidance from outside of our insane cult compound. However much we may talk about the importance of following guidance, I think most of us carry around the assumption that we pretty much have things figured out most of the time, and we turn to the Holy Spirit only when we have an especially tricky problem. But this is not so. We know not what we do. We need guidance every moment. We are truly sunk without it.
So, for my part, I’m trying to do a couple of things. One thing I’m trying to do is listen to people more carefully, with the Holy Spirit’s help. I’m trying to follow Steven Covey’s dictum from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I’m trying to listen to others in the way the “Answer to Prayer” section in the Text (T-9.II) discusses: I’m trying to hear God’s Voice in what they are saying, so that I may understand not only what they are saying on the surface, but the deeper message they are conveying to me. In their words, that section says, are nothing less than the answers to my own prayers.
The success of this really depends on the other thing I’m trying to do: I’m trying to remind myself moment by moment just how much I really don’t understand, and how much I really need the guidance of Someone Who does. I’m saying to myself, as Lesson 242 says:
I will not lead my life alone today. I do not understand the world, and so to try to lead my life alone must be but foolishness. But there is One Who knows all that is best for me. And He is glad to make no choices for me but the ones that lead to God. I give this day to Him, for I would not delay my coming home, and it is He Who knows the way to God. (W-pII.242.1:1-5)
I’m also getting a lot of mileage, as I have in the past, from the following practice, which we are meant to apply “when your peace is threatened or disturbed in any way”:
I do not know what anything, including this, means. And so I do not know how to respond to it. And I will not use my own past learning as the light to guide me now.
By this refusal to attempt to teach yourself what you do not know, the Guide Whom God has given you will speak to you. He will take His rightful place in your awareness the instant you abandon it, and offer it to Him. (T-14.XI.6:6-11)
As for Patricia and me, we have developed our own little practice to apply to those misunderstandings. My version, which I use when I misunderstand her, goes like this: “Patricia loves me and I trust her. This situation is merely an innocent misunderstanding. Our infinite love will shine this misunderstanding away.”
Our infinite love, of course, is really God’s Love. The misunderstanding is just an innocent mistake that can be corrected by God’s Love. And giving that mistake over to God’s Love opens both of our minds to the Holy Spirit. We do not understand, but there is Someone in us Who does. And He is glad to make no choices for us but the ones that lead to God.
Of course, this won’t clear up all the world’s misunderstandings overnight. Peace in the Middle East (and in Mexico!) might take a little while. But it’s a start.