“The Greatest Gift,” by Sally McKirgan from A Better Way.
I have a true story, a beautiful experience really, about the greatest gifts I ever received.
It was Christmas 1987. Earlier that year, in April, I had started studying A Course In Miracles, and I had made the commitment to do one lesson each day no matter if I “got it” or not. I must have been on or about Lesson 245. At the time I was working in downtown San Francisco for my husband’s company and ran banking errands every afternoon. San Francisco was decked out as usual with wonderful Holiday decorations, and with the throngs of shoppers it was chaotic and exciting. The weather was cold and a damp; fog hung in the air. The afternoon sky was white with the chill. As I was returning to the office I stood on the corner across from Macy’s waiting for the light to change. I noticed a group of homeless people sitting in front of Macy’s, and in particular a young woman, sitting on a blanket with a child on her lap. The thought went through my mind: “That could be Mary and Jesus sitting on that hard street, needing a place to stay, cold and hungry.” As I stood there I reached into my purse, pulled out a dollar, and put it in my pocket, deciding I would give it to her when I walked by. The light turned green and I proceeded across the street with the crowd. As I approached I saw that she had golden reddish curly long hair and a freckled face with very fair skin. The baby was in her lap, wrapped in a blue blanket, and she was writing a sign with her free hand asking for money for help. Just as I leaned down to give her my dollar saying “God Bless,” she looked up and said “Thank You” in the warmest voice I have ever heard. Then our eyes locked. The gift I gave was puny and insignificant in comparison to what she gave me. Her gift was the sight of Great Heavenly Rays! As I looked down into her eyes, I saw Great Rays of light shooting heavenward, up to the right. It was only an instant. I was so shocked I stepped back immediately; eyes brimming with tears, I stumbled up the street. As I walked back to work I was in shock. What on earth was that? When I got to the office I started to tell my husband but my eyes filled with tears; I couldn’t speak and he was so busy he didn’t notice my bewilderment. I thought maybe I should go back and see her but actually felt afraid to do so! Words cannot do justice to the experience, of course.
In writing to you I just now tried to estimate out what lesson I could have been on. I started counting from mid-April to mid-December and figured around number 245. When I just now looked it up, it sounds like it set me up for the amazing day I had:
Your peace is with me, Father. I am safe. Your peace surrounds me, Father. Where I go, Your peace goes there with me. It sheds its light on everyone I meet. I bring it to the desolate and lonely and afraid. I give Your peace to those who suffer pain, or grieve for loss, or think they are bereft of hope and happiness. Send them to me, my Father. Let me bring your peace with me. For I would save Your Son, as is Your Will, that I may come to recognize my Self. (W-pII.245.Heading-1:8)
Our usual default position (often unconscious): When in doubt, don’t actively help another person
We all find stories like the above inspiring, yet I don’t think any of us acts on the impulse to help another person as much as the Course wants us to: “Have you really considered how many opportunities you have had to gladden yourself [by helping others], and how many of them you have refused?” (T-4.IV.8:1). This is a universal phenomenon and there are many reasons for it, but in class we discussed reasons that are specific to Course students:
1. We use the Course to tell ourselves that our helping impulse is probably from the ego
Our Course community does not place a high value on actively helping other people in the world. It’s not that we’re mean people who don’t help. Many of us are very kind and helpful people, especially with those who are close to us. Rather, there is simply an ambivalence around the idea of actively seeking to help people in the world—especially those outside our usual social boundaries. This ambivalence was evident a few years ago when the Circle decided to dedicate itself to “A Year of Service”: a year of doing Course-based service work for marginalized people in our community (like working at a soup kitchen and visiting people in nursing homes). To our surprise, we got a lot of feedback from Course students expressing misgivings with this focus. Would we have gotten this kind of feedback if we had instead chosen “A Year of Doing Nothing”? My guess is, probably not.
There seems to be an ethos in this community that suggests that the impulse to help is extremely likely to come from the ego. We see this ethos in the things Course students often say to express misgivings about the helping impulse: “Don’t make the error real.” “I need do nothing.” “Don’t try to fix anything.” “It’s all perfect.” “Just accept what is.” “Seek not to change the world.” “Don’t get caught up in spiritual specialness.” We see it also in a leeriness about helping, stemming from our belief that we’re just too ego-ridden to do anyone any good. As a participant in the class put it: “Who am I to try to help someone?” How can I, with all of my problems and hang-ups and weaknesses, really do any good for anyone else?
2. Even when we do help, we don’t regard it as an essential part of the Course’s path
As I said, it’s not that we’re mean people who never help anyone. We do. But even when we do, my impression is that most of us do not regard it as a vital and necessary part of the Course’s path. We know that being kind is a positive thing, but we don’t regard active helping as critical to salvation.
The view expressed in the Psychotherapy supplement
What does the author of the Course have to say about all this? We discussed two passages from the Psychotherapy supplement. It’s important to realize that these passages are talking specifically about a psychotherapist working with a patient. Thus they are discussing a situation in which one person is actively helping another, and can clearly be applied to all such situations, not just psychotherapy.
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. And He has guaranteed that He will hear and answer them in truth. They can be sure that healing is a process He directs, because it is according to His Will. We have His Word to guide us, as we try to help our brothers. Let us not forget that we are helpless of ourselves, and lean upon a strength beyond our little scope for what to teach as well as what to learn….
For two have joined. And now God’s promises are kept by Him. The limits laid on both the patient and the therapist will count as nothing, for the healing has begun. What they must start their Father will complete. For He has never asked for more than just the smallest willingness, the least advance, the tiniest of whispers of His Name. To ask for help, whatever form it takes, is but to call on Him. And He will send His Answer through the therapist who best can serve His Son in all his present needs. (P-2.V.4:1-8, 6:1-7)
The curriculum by which [the professional therapist] became a therapist probably taught him little or nothing about the real principles of healing. In fact, it probably taught him how to make healing impossible. Most of the world’s teaching follows a curriculum in judgment, with the aim of making the therapist a judge.
Even this the Holy Spirit can use, and will use, given the slightest invitation. The unhealed healer may be arrogant, selfish, unconcerned, and actually dishonest. He may be uninterested in healing as his major goal. Yet something happened to him, however slight it may have been, when he chose to be a healer, however misguided the direction he may have chosen. That “something” is enough. Sooner or later that something will rise and grow; a patient will touch his heart, and the therapist will silently ask him for help. He has himself found a therapist. He has asked the Holy Spirit to enter the relationship and heal it. He has accepted the Atonement for himself. (P-3.II.2:2-3:9)
The view expressed by these passages
The view expressed by these passages could be summarized as follows:
- The impulse to help another person is not of the ego; it is the holiest thing in the world.
- This is true no matter how tainted it is by ego distortions.
- Because this is true, the slightest willingness to join with another in help and healing is a call to God.
- God will answer this call, and His Voice, the Holy Spirit, will guide us through the process.
- Through this process, the ego distortions will be purified, and healing will occur.
A new default position: When in doubt, do actively help another person
Of course, we should ask the Holy Spirit what forms this should take; as one of the passages above says, “We have His Word to guide us, as we try to help our brothers.” But the point is that, based on these passages and the teachings of the Course as a whole, we should “err” on the side of trying to help. The Course itself presents a very different view from the one expressed in the two numbered points above:
1. The helping impulse is not from the ego; instead, “nothing in the world is holier”
True, our egos can piggyback on that impulse and distort it. But it is so holy that “two come very close to God in this attempt, however limited, however lacking in sincerity.” It is so holy that even when a helper is a scheming snake on the surface (as in the second passage), the impulse to help will “rise and grow” to the point that the former “snake” will become a true miracle worker by fulfilling the one responsibility of the miracle worker: accepting the Atonement for himself. Helping others is God’s Will, so our very willingness to follow our helping impulse will invite Him in and initiate the process that will clean out whatever ego impurities may be there.
2. Following the helping impulse is an essential part of the Course’s path
This is “a course in miracles” after all: a course in extending miracles to others. As this last passage from the Psychotherapy supplement makes clear, it is only through helping another person that we find salvation:
Let us stand silently before God’s Will, and do what it has chosen that we do. There is one way alone by which we come to where all dreams began. And it is there that we will lay them down, to come away in peace forever. Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him. There is no other way to hear His Voice. There is no other way to seek His Son. There is no other way to find your Self. Holy is healing, for the Son of God returns to Heaven through its kind embrace. For healing tells him, in the Voice for God, that all his sins have been forgiven him. (P-2.V.8:1-10)
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]