Does the Course Really Say This?
At the Circle, we have long stressed that actively helping other people in the world is an essential part of the Course’s path. We believe that the Course intends to produce “graduates” along the lines of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and above all the historical Jesus: true miracle workers who devote their lives to selflessly serving their brothers, in order to bring about their salvation and the salvation of the world.
Over the years, a number of Course students have expressed misgivings about our approach. While these misgivings have been expressed in many ways, one common way has been to claim that placing an emphasis on helping other people in the world “makes the error real.” In other words, according to this view, an emphasis on being of service to people “out there” makes the error of separation real in our minds—it reinforces the apparent reality of the separation.
The idea that the Course warns against making the error real is widespread. Ken Wapnick says that not making the error real is the Course’s “prime directive,” which means that in his eyes, it is the most important principle in the entire Course. Many seem to agree with him. Indeed, this idea seems to be a basic pillar of Course community lore.
But is it really a basic pillar of the Course? Does the Course really instruct us not to do things to help others in the world, because helping others would make the error real? I’m sure you can already guess my answer. In this article, I will present that answer briefly, and then address the issue in more depth.
The Course never says that helping others in the world will automatically make the error real.
Far from being a basic pillar of the Course, this idea is not in the Course at all. At least I have never found it. Not only does the Course never say that helping others in the world will automatically make the error real, it never uses the phrase “make the error real” (or “makes the error real” or “making the error real”) at all. Thus, amazingly, this phrase that is so often repeated in Course circles, a phrase that many regard as a bedrock principle of its teachings, is one that cannot be found anywhere in the Course’s pages.
To “make error real” means to see our brothers’ errors as sins, which leads us to “help” our brothers in ego-driven ways.
While the Course never uses the phrase “make the error real,” there is one occurrence of the phrase “make error real”: “You have been told not to make error real” (T-12.I.1:1). The concept conveyed by this phrase also appears elsewhere in the Course, including T-9.III.6:7, T-9.IV.4:4-6, T-11.V.14:2-6, T-12.III.2:1-4, and S-2.I.3:3-4. However, none of these passages says that doing things in the world to help others reinforces the separation.
What, then, does the phrase “make error real” and its variants mean? Perhaps the most succinct statement of what it means is in Chapter 9 of the Text: “To perceive errors in anyone, and to react to them as if they were real, is to make them real to you” (T-9.III.6:7). In other words, to make error real is to believe in the reality of the errors our brothers make, a belief that is reinforced by our reactions to those errors. The phrase refers to our persistent habit of focusing on all the things other people do wrong in our eyes, and seeing those things as weighty sins rather than innocent mistakes. When we chew out our co-worker for forgetting the meeting, or lecture our children about their lousy grades, or grudgingly overlook our spouse’s annoying habits, we are making error real. By focusing on other people’s errors, we see them as guilty sinners who deserve our condemnation rather than innocent Sons of God who deserve our love.
Our perception of our brothers is inextricably tied to our reactions to them. Once we’ve decided that Joe Blow is a dirty rotten sinner, we will react to his “sins” accordingly. The specific examples I used above are illustrations of some of the reactions the Course mentions .One popular option is to get angry at him (as in T-12.III.2).Another option is to try to “help” him in various ego-driven ways. We might do this by giving him what we call “constructive criticism” (as in T-9.III.2:1), or by taking the high road of reluctantly “forgiving” his transgressions (as in T-9.IV.4). But all of these options are really useless. Once we’ve made a brother’s errors real by seeing them as sins, any response we choose will just make those sins look blacker and more intractable, both in our mind and in his.
This is quite different from what Course students generally mean by “making the error real.” Perhaps the best way to highlight that difference is to note that none of the Course’s references to the idea of making error real speak of making the error real. The absence of “the” may seem trivial, but in fact it makes a huge difference. When Course students speak of making the error real, they are referring to the ultimate error: the separation. But the Course’s idea of making error real refers not to the error of the separation, but to the specific errors we see our brothers making. It is describing a particular phenomenon within the separation: our unfortunate habit of seeing our brothers’ illusory errors as real sins and reacting to them accordingly.
Of course, it is perfectly true that seeing our brothers’ errors as sins is one way in which we reinforce the separation in our minds. One could say that making error real is one way in which we make the error real. The concept of making the error of the separation real definitely exists in the Course; we do that whenever we listen to the ego. The Course’s discussions of making error real, however, refer to a more specific phenomenon, and do not in any way suggest that doing things to help others in the world is always an ego ploy that reinforces the separation.
The solution to this problem is not to stop helping our brothers, but to stop making their errors real, which enables us to help them in Holy Spirit-inspired ways.
The Course never says that the way to avoid making error real is to refrain from helping our brothers. If we believe that the Course’s author is Jesus, this should hardly be surprising. Why would Jesus, who in his earthly life actively helped and healed others through working miracles, now counsel us to avoid doing what he did? Far from discouraging us from helping our brothers, the Course implores us to do so. Indeed, the section that most directly tells us not to make error real (T-12.I) is the same section that says everything our brothers do is either an expression of love or a call for help—a call we should answer with help.
True, we are told to stop our ego-based ways of helping: “Do not attempt to ‘help’ a brother in your way” (T-12.I.6:10). We are to abandon our futile project of reforming our brothers through chastising them or desperately trying to overlook their grievous sins. We are to abort our forgiveness-to-destroy mission. However, letting go of helping our brothers in our way is not an end in itself, but a prerequisite for helping them in the Holy Spirit’s way. If we want to find the Help of God ourselves, we must offer help to any brother who needs it, “for only by answering his appeal can you be helped” (T-12.I.5:6). As the Course says many times in many ways, helping our brothers is the only way to awaken to God.
How are we to help our brothers? Above all, we are to stop making their errors real, and let the Holy Spirit give us a new perception of our brothers as holy Sons of God. Under His tutelage, we are to help them through true forgiveness, true correction—in short, through offering them miracles. And though miracles are at heart a mental extension of healed perception, they can often take the form of behavioral extension as well. So, to bring back my earlier examples of making error real, we might express our healed perception by taking our co-worker to lunch, or hugging our children, or truly overlooking our spouse’s formerly annoying habits. I believe that in some instances, we may even express our healed perception in the form of genuinely loving confrontation, as Jesus does with us so often in the Course. But whatever the form, physically responding to our brothers is often part of the miracle. After all, communicating healed perception is the body’s only function in the eyes of the Holy Spirit.
Notice that the response to our brothers described here is quite different than the response suggested by those who warn against making the error real. The Course’s idea is that we should take a charitable attitude toward our brothers by not focusing on the errors they make. This is an act of kindness toward them. But the idea prevalent in the Course community is that we must avoid behaviors that appear to reinforce the erroneous idea that there really is a separate world “out there.” The particular behaviors that are usually warned against are acts of kindness stemming from a desire to help. The two ideas, then, lead to strikingly different responses to others. The Course’s idea of not making error real results in kindness to others; the Course community’s idea of not making the error real warns against kindness to others. The addition of that little “the” changes how we see the entire ethos of the Course.
Now, no Course student I’ve encountered has ever objected to kindness per se. The sticking point seems to be the idea that the Course really wants us to help other people in the world as part of its path. Yet the Course material gives us many examples of the value of helping others in concrete, external ways. The Course itself was Jesus’ response to Helen and Bill’s call for help. In his personal guidance to them, Jesus constantly instructed them to help each other and other people in tangible ways. Journey Without Distance describes how they were guided to help a young woman in need; during their encounter with this young woman, Jesus said to them, “This is my true church…helping another” (Journey Without Distance, by Robert Skutch, p. 50). The famous “truly helpful” prayer (T-2.V(A).18:2-6) was originally given to Bill so that he could be truly helpful to others as he attended a conference on rehabilitation. The Course itself describes active helping roles: teacher of God, healer of patients, psychotherapist. And in the Psychotherapy supplement, an instruction manual for Course-based psychotherapy, Jesus says that helping others is nothing less than the holiest thing in the world:
Healing is holy. Nothing in the world is holier than helping one who asks for help. And two come very close to God in this attempt, however limited, however lacking in sincerity. Where two have joined for healing, God is there. (P-2.V.4:1-4)
This passage is a plain and unequivocal statement of Jesus’ attitude toward helping others in the world. It is definitely talking about such outward help, since it is specifically referring to psychotherapists helping patients. And it clearly refutes the idea that helping others in the world is nothing but an ego ploy to make the error real. On the contrary, Jesus says here that even when our helping is tainted to some degree with ego elements (when it is “limited” and “lacking in sincerity”), it is still the holiest thing in the world. The very attempt to help another is an act of joining that invites the Presence of God to dwell with us.
Why is helping others in concrete, external ways valuable? One reason the Course gives, a reason that is especially relevant to our topic here, is that doing so can actually demonstrate the unreality of the separation. We find this idea in the Text section “Changeless Reality” (T-30.VIII). The second paragraph of that section discusses what happens when a miracle worker performs a miracle for a brother. The miracle described here is not just an internal healing of his mind, but one that also produces an external healing: “the appearance of his perfect health, his perfect freedom from all forms of lack, and safety from disaster of all kinds” (T-30.VIII.2:5). Thus, this is a description of the very thing Course students are concerned about when they warn against making the error real: helping someone in the world by changing an external condition.
In this paragraph, however, the Course itself expresses a very different attitude. Far from condemning this helping act as something that reinforces the apparent reality of the separation, the Course claims that it proves the unreality of the separation. The helping miracle does so by proving that the external condition—which arose from the belief in separation, and seemed so immutably real before the miracle came—was nothing more than an ephemeral appearance. “The miracle attests salvation from appearances by showing they can change” (T-30.VIII.2:2). The miracle worker’s healing of his brother’s external condition “demonstrates that [the condition] was never real, and could not stem from his reality” (T-30.VIII.2:7).It shows, in a way that is impossible to miss, that the condition had no effect whatsoever on changeless, eternal reality.
All of this leads to a punchline that turns the conventional notion of making the error real on its ear: Helping our brothers in the world doesn’t automatically make the error of the separation real; instead, helping our brothers in the world in a Holy Spirit-inspired way proves that the error of the separation is unreal.
I can find no Course evidence at all to support the idea that helping others in the world automatically makes the error real. We have seen that the Course never says this, nor does it even use the phrase “make the error real” at all. How, then, can it be a pillar of the Course’s teaching? How can something the Course never says be the “prime directive” of the Course?
We have also seen that the phrase “make error real,” which the Course does use, does not refer to the idea of making the error of separation real through helping others. Instead, it refers to the idea of making our brothers’ specific errors real through focusing on those errors. Making our brothers’ errors real is certainly one way in which we make the error of separation real. However, it does not follow that helping others in the world is always an ego-based attempt to reinforce our belief in separation.
Finally, we have seen that the Course’s discussions of the idea of making error real actually encourage us to help our brothers. Giving up our ego-based ways of helping them allows us to truly help them in Holy Spirit-inspired ways. Helping others, both mentally and behaviorally, is so central to the Course’s path that it regards such help as the holiest thing in the world. Helping others as the Holy Spirit directs doesn’t reinforce our belief in separation, but in fact undoes that belief.
Given all this, I would like to suggest that we remove from our fund of Course lore the idea that helping others in the world makes the error real. In my opinion, doing so will remove a major block to experiencing the promises of the Course in our lives. Those promises will manifest in us only if we become true miracle workers who bring the healing Love of God to our brothers in need, and in so doing save the world.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]