When the Going Gets Really Tough

I have been thinking about grieving – feeling any kind of intensity really – and A Course in Miracles. How does it work when the going gets unbearably difficult?

On Friday there was a terrible school shooting in Connecticut. I saw a headline as I was passing through a faculty office early in the day but didn’t pay attention. A few hours later, my students raised it in class. I encourage discussion about current events, the better to explore writers like Thoreau and Gandhi. In about fifteen minutes, I knew more than I wanted to know.

And it hit me hard. It hits everyone hard, I know. But some things I can roll with while others really stick. This stuck. I have kids that age. I know that geographical area. It just seemed to eat into me.

Mostly I felt a sort of horror: how can such things happen in the world? How scared those poor children must have been. How devastated the parents and the survivors.

Beyond that was a sort of intense sadness – a deep grief like a rip tide. It was as if the answer to the “how can this happen” was “why shouldn’t it happen” and so what else was there to feel but a sadness before which one is powerless?

And of course, I also felt fear – that some day I will go through that type of experience or worse, my children will. The horror will touch me and those I love and it won’t be just a headline but a bloody reality. And with that was also – buried a bit but certainly there – gratitude that it this time it didn’t happen to me but to somebody else. I felt ashamed of that but it was there.

And finally, I felt confusion. Wouldn’t a perfect ACIM student just smile calmly and coast through this stuff as easy as water rippling over sand? I must be a terrible and misguided student to feel so much so intensely. How broken can a man be?

So I want to try and say a little bit about how I understand the course’s application to situations like this and then how I approach that application. It is not to say I am right or that this is the way for all students for all time. It’s just where I’m at right now. I’m learning like we all are.

When these horrifying things show up in our lives, it is important as course students to remember that we put them there. We are doing it. The course never equivocates on this point.

Projection makes perception. The world you see is what you gave it, nothing more than that. But though it is no more than that, it is not less. Therefore, to you it is important. It is the witness to your state of mind, the outside picture of an inward condition. As a man thinketh, so does he perceive. Therefore, seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world. Perception is a result and not a cause (T-21.In.1:1-8).

We have to see the truth of this – the wisdom of this approach – without falling into the trap of judgment. We don’t want to be angry at ourselves or feel guilty or responsible (or self-congratulatory when things appear to be going spectacularly). The point isn’t to engage in self-abuse. It is helpful to remember that we aren’t taking this “projection-makes-perception” thing on because we are going to change anything outside of ourselves. We are simply looking at the external in order to get clear about what is going on internally.

In a sense, when we do this, we are moving from the specific towards the general, or abstract. We start with the painful facts – a school shooting, in this case – and we move towards the fear and guilt (and anger and hate and all of that) that underlie that fact. And as we come into contact with those underlying causes, we give them over to be healed. That is the course’s vision of forgiveness.

What does this mean practically? For me it means staying with the feelings for as long as possible. So I feel the horror and I try not to run from it. I ask for help in looking at it – just seeing it. I acknowledge mentally how hard this is – how badly I want to look away, be distracted, find a better thought and so forth. But I stay with it. And all I can tell you is that the longer I can do that, the easier it becomes. Just a little but it’s noticeable. The negativity isn’t dissolved entirely – there aren’t any flashing lights or dancing angels.

But there is some – there is a little – peace.

So I keep going. I face the ugliness of being happy that it didn’t happen to my children. I face the anger that I live in a country where it can happen to anybody’s children. When I feel the voice of reason start up – well, it’s natural to feel grateful your kids are alive – I just gently set it aside. I don’t want to rationalize my way into justifying anything. When I start to visualize joining or instigating a political campaign in favor of gun control, I put it aside. The point isn’t to solve the problem “out there.”

I’m not saying those things are wrong, of course – just that they are forms and the point here is to move away from form and towards the content of love. When we are in motion with love, the form takes care of itself.

Stay with the feelings. Stay in the abstraction as much as possible. Just feel it. Just let it be. Don’t judge it. Or rather, let the judgment you feel be part of it. Maybe you think – as I did, and do from time to time – that a real ACIM student wouldn’t be crying/wouldn’t need to pray to Jesus/wouldn’t this/shouldn’t that. Let that be, too. That’s part of the fear. That’s there to be forgiven as well.

What happens with all of this is that slowly we begin to really accept that the problem isn’t out there but in here. We see the truth of it. And when we accept that, then we can really begin to undo the egoic thought system that reverses cause and effect, confuses form and content, and thus traps us in misery and guilty and fear.

It is hard work! And it is painful work too. But these things that really trip us up, that really make us want to scream and throw things or hide in monasteries or quit on God altogether – they are truly profound opportunities to heal, to get clear on what the egoic thought system is up to, and to choose something different. It doesn’t feel especially spiritual or anything. Mostly it is like going for a long walk through a neighborhood that scares you and always has. But then once we start, we realize we are not alone – in more ways than one – and so the journey becomes lighter altogether.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Gina December 16, 2012, 7:55 pm

    It is so sad to think of the children and wonder what they felt or thought at that instant. We need to pray for their parents and siblings left behind.

    • Sean Reagan December 17, 2012, 11:18 am

      Thank you for reading, Gina. Prayer – as inclusive as possible – is never out of place. Thank you.

  • MJD December 17, 2012, 8:03 pm

    When we are in motion with love, the form takes care of itself. Out of all the words you wrote, this takes precedence. It is a sad thing indeed when someone is diagnosed with a mental health disorder and are simply given pills as a means to combat the disorder. A sad thing indeed when the pills only work when there is intensive therapy, but the patient can’t afford the therapy and opts for the pills only, hoping it will “cure” them of their malady, when in fact the two (medication and therapy) must work in conjunction for there to be any real success in treatment. Something needs to be done about our mental health system. It saddens me when therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists know that medication alone has no chance of relieving the symptoms of mental health disorders, that there must be one-on-one therapy with the patient in order to truly alleviate the symptoms of whatever disorder a patient may have. Why? Medication is 3 times or more cheaper than therapy. Maybe if we adjusted this there would be a healthier nation.

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