Never Correct a Brother’s Error?

by Greg Mackie

The "Correction of Error" section in the Text (T-9.III) is a section that confounds many Course students. It is often taken to say that you should never correct a brother's error at any time for any reason. Certainly there are lines in the section that seem to suggest this. This makes Course students reluctant to even say that another person might be in error, especially in discussions about Course interpretation. We walk around with this tension in our minds: On the one hand, all of us feel that there really are times when correction is necessary, but on the other hand we hear the Course whispering in our ear, "Don't correct error." This tension can paralyze us in situations where some error correcting needs to be done. Ironically, though, as reluctant as Course students are to correct error, the one error that many seem eager to correct, citing this section as they do so, is the error of correcting errors.

But does this section really say that you should never correct a brother's error at any time for any reason? I don't think so. To understand what it is really saying, I think we need to examine it carefully and draw from other Course material—especially the sections immediately following—for further explanation. That is what I will do in this article. What I have found is that the section is part of a beautiful Course teaching about how to be a true healer.

Initial reasons for doubting the "never correct error" interpretation

Even before digging into the teachings of T-9.III, there are several reasons to be skeptical about the idea that this section bans all error correcting. First, it is a simple fact of life that human interaction involves some correction of each other's errors, either implicitly or explicitly. From correcting tests in school to honking at a car hurtling into your lane to suggesting a better way to do the accounting, at least some error correcting is simply a human necessity (though we almost certainly do too much of it).

Indeed, refusing to do so can sometimes place people in danger. The Course itself says, "Babies scream in rage if you take away a knife or scissors, although they may well harm themselves if you do not" (T-4.II.5:2). And Robert told me a sad true story about a Course student with a developmentally disabled son who had difficulty walking a straight line. Father and son were hiking on a cliffside trail in Sedona and the father saw that the son wasn't walking carefully or steadily enough. He told the local newspaper later, however, that he didn't want to correct the boy. But this decision led to tragic consequences: The son fell off the cliff to his death. Sometimes, correction simply has to be done.

Second, if Jesus is really instituting a total ban on correcting errors, he sure isn't practicing what he preaches. The entire Course is one long correction of our errors. He frequently corrected Helen and Bill's errors, in an always loving but sometimes blunt way. And he clearly approved of human beings correcting each other's errors as long as it is done in the right spirit. He sometimes instructed Helen and Bill to correct each other's errors; for instance, he once said to Helen, "Tell [Bill] that his delaying tactics are holding him back." And he praised a woman named Mrs. Albert for lovingly correcting Helen's forgetting of her name: "She corrected your error about her name without embarrassment and without hostility.…She made the correction only because you were inaccurate, and the whole question of embarrassment did not occur to her."

Finally, there are positive references in the Course material itself to correcting a brother's error, as we will see.

The message of T-9.III, "The Correction of Error"

Now let's turn to T-9.III. What does it really say about correcting error? Looking carefully at its teaching, I see a message that can be boiled down to three main points:

1) The problem is that your ego is vigilant for the errors of your brother's ego, which makes those errors real and thus reinforces the ego in both of you

The problem the section addresses is named in the very first line: "The alertness of the ego to the errors of other egos is not the kind of vigilance the Holy Spirit would have you maintain" (1:1). What kind of vigilance would the Holy Spirit have you maintain? This is a subtle reference to the third lesson of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 6: "Be vigilant only for God and His Kingdom" (T-6.V.C.2:8). So, this section is contrasting two types of vigilance: the ego's vigilance for the errors of other egos, and the Holy Spirit's vigilance for God and His Kingdom—for the truth in our brothers. Thus, though the section does refer to how the ego loves to "point out errors and 'correct' them" (2:1), the emphasis in the section doesn't seem to be on pointing out errors per se, but on the ego's habit of looking for errors to point out—what Workbook Lesson 181 calls "your focus on your brother's sins" (W-pI.181.2:5).

As a result of this focus, our brother's errors are made real in our minds: "To perceive errors in anyone, and to react to them as if they were real, is to make them real to you" (6:7). We now believe they are real, even though the Holy Spirit knows they are not real. This, I believe, is the import of one of the most confusing lines in the section: "If you point out the errors of your brother's ego you must be seeing through yours, because the Holy Spirit does not perceive his errors" (3:1). It is confusing because elsewhere the Course very plainly states that the Holy Spirit can perceive errors (see, for instance, T-19.III.5:1). How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? I think the resolution lies in the fact that in the Course, "Do not see x" can often mean "Do not see x as real." For instance, in the Song of Prayer we read, "Do not see error. Do not make it real" (S-2.I.3:3-4). So, I think 3:1 means this: "If you are vigilant for the errors of your brother's ego, you must be seeing through your ego, because the Holy Spirit does not perceive his errors as real."

Making our brother's errors real in our minds makes our own errors real as well:

If you perceive his errors and accept them [as real], you are accepting yours. (5:2)

Accept his errors as real, and you have attacked yourself. (7:2)

The end result of all this is that both our brother's ego identity and our own ego identity are reinforced. When our ego is vigilant for the errors of other egos, all we see wherever we look is a bunch of egos.

2) The solution isn't to deny that your brother makes errors on a form level

This is the solution Course students often reach for, but it is definitely not what the section is saying. It gives us an injunction that begins "When your brother behaves insanely…" (5:1). How could you carry this injunction out unless you were able to tell when your brother was behaving insanely? And while the section instructs us to tell our brother he is right, we aren't being asked to pretend that everything he says is pure gold:

He may be making no sense at the time, and it is certain that, if he is speaking from the ego, he will not be making sense.…You do not tell him [he is right] verbally, if he is speaking foolishly.…His ego is always wrong, no matter what it says or does. (2:5, 7, 10)

If we're not being asked to tell a brother he is right verbally when he is speaking foolishly, just what exactly are we supposed to tell him verbally? Should we just not say anything? Certainly there are many times when this is appropriate; many errors are too trivial to merit mention. But are we to do this all the time? If a friend says to you, "I want to commit suicide," do you stay heroically silent instead of trying to talk her out of it? I think not. I think there is an implication here that you may be called to point it out when someone is speaking foolishly, an implication that will be made explicit in other sections.

3) The solution is to look past your brother's errors to the truth in him, which shows that error is unreal and thus reinforces the awareness of your true Identity in both of you

Even if we may be called to point out errors in a brother sometimes, the section's counsel is that to actually undo errors, we must see beyond them to the true Identity of our brother. This is how we tell him he is right:

Errors are of the ego, and correction of errors lies in the relinquishment of the ego.…Your task is still to tell him he is right….He needs correction at another level, because his error is at another level. He is still right, because he is a Son of God. (2:3, 6, 8-9)

The idea is that even as we see his errors on a form level-like insane behavior-at the same time we look past them to the truth that his errors are not real and he is not an ego: He is a Son of God. We take the function of correction away from our egos and give it to the Holy Spirit, Whose function it is. We accept our true function of healing with His help, and we "heal him…by perceiving the sanity in him" (5:1). In short, we forgive our brother. This decision to forgive and see that our brother is God's Son enables the Holy Spirit to correct his mind through us.

The end result of seeing the true Identity of our brother is that we learn the truth that we too are God's Son, totally forgiven:

The Holy Spirit in you forgives all things in you and in your brother. His errors are forgiven with yours. (7:4-5)

[The Holy Spirit] will teach you how to see yourself without condemnation by learning how to look on everything without it. Condemnation will then not be real to you, and all your errors will be forgiven. (8:10-11)

The clarification of this message in the following two sections (T-9.IV and T-9.V)

The three points in my summary of the "Correction of Error" section are repeated in various forms throughout the Course material. In particular, they are echoed in the two sections that immediately follow, sections which are clearly meant to clarify and expand on the message of T-9.III. And, crucial for our purposes here, T-9.V makes explicit what I think is implicit in the second point: There are times when it is appropriate to point out a brother's error, especially when you are in a healing role. Let's look at some of that material now. (I've numbered the three points for clarity.)

T-9.IV, "The Holy Spirit's Plan of Forgiveness"

1) In this section, the problem is the ego's plan of forgiveness, in which "you see error clearly first, and then overlook it" (4:4). This doesn't work because "By seeing it clearly, you have made it real and cannot overlook it" (4:6). All it does is the same thing that being vigilant for the errors of our brother's ego does in the previous section: We make our brother's errors real and thus reinforce the ego in both of us: "Perceive what he is not and you cannot know what you are, because you see him falsely" (1:5).

2) As in the "Correction of Error" section, the solution here isn't to deny that our brother makes errors on a form level.

3) Rather, the solution is to overlook those errors, a word my dictionary defines as "ignore or disregard (something, esp. a fault or offense)." In this section, overlooking errors means to ignore or disregard them as evidence of who our brother really is. This is the Holy Spirit's plan of forgiveness, which consists of "looking beyond error from the beginning, and thus keeping it unreal for you" (5:3). By doing this, we see the truth in both our brother and ourselves; we see that we are not egos but holy Sons of God.

T-9.V, "The Unhealed Healer"

This next section shows how the plans of forgiveness presented in the last section apply to two healing roles: the theologian and the psychotherapist.

1) The problem is that theologians and therapists who are "unhealed healers" each practice a version of the ego's plan of forgiveness, in which you make error real and then try to overlook it. The theologian's version starts with the conviction that sin is real and then proposes a magical solution to "forgive" it, such as Jesus dying on the cross. The therapist's version starts with the conviction that the mental errors uncovered in therapy are real-"This is who you really are"-and then proposes another magical solution to "forgive" them: saying that they are just impotent thoughts, so as long as they are not acted out, everything is okay. Both of these magical solutions, of course, just keep the errors in place and thus reinforce the egos of everyone involved.

2) Once again, though, the solution is not to pretend that such errors don't exist on a form level. On the contrary, in his discussion of the therapist's role, Jesus makes very clear that pointing out those errors is actually an important part of the therapeutic process. We are told that "It can be helpful to point out to a patient where he is heading" (Urtext version of 7:2) and "There is an advantage to bringing nightmares into awareness" (Urtext version of 3:1). These lines look like direct, intentional clarifications of the "Correction of Error" section, as if Jesus is saying, "I know that section may have sounded like you should never, ever correct a brother's error, but I'm telling you now that as a therapist it can be helpful and there is an advantage in pointing out the error of your patient's ways."

3) But while there is a place for pointing out errors in the psychotherapeutic process, the solution to the problem of the unhealed healer is to do this in a way that shows the errors are unreal-to simultaneously look past them to the truth in the patient. When the therapist points out where the patient is heading, "the point is lost unless he is also helped to change his direction" (7:2). When the therapist brings nightmares into awareness, she should do so "only to teach that they are not real, and that anything they contain is meaningless" (3:1). So pointing out error is only a precursor to the main part of her job: showing that the error is unreal, that this is not who the patient really is. The therapist is to look to the true Identity of the patient with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Echoes of this message in other Course material

We see echoes of this same basic message all over the Course material. For instance, in the Psychotherapy supplement, the therapist's role clearly involves correction of the patient's erroneous beliefs. A major part of his role is "to aid the patient in abandoning his fixed delusional system, and to begin to reconsider the spurious cause and effect relationships on which it rests" (P-1.In.1:2). But to keep from doing this in a way that makes those errors real, the supplement says that the therapist must simultaneously see beyond those errors to the truth in the patient through forgiveness. This is the primary engine of healing, not only for the patient but for the therapist: "The process that takes place in this relationship is actually one in which the therapist in his heart tells the patient that all his sins have been forgiven him, along with his own" (P-2.VII.3:1).

Helen received similar advice in personal guidance about performing psychological tests to assess patients' mental health. Jesus said that the potential problem with this is the temptation to regard the results of those tests as real, which would reinforce the apparent reality of the therapist's own mental errors: "As you see him, you will see yourself." The solution, however, isn't to refrain from psychological testing; it is an "unfortunate necessity" in this world. Rather, the solution is to simultaneously look past the results of the tests to the truth in the patient, "to recognize that you are discussing only illusions, and that this has no real meaning at all." With this attitude and prayers for her patients, Helen would "call forth and experience a miracle instead," a miracle that would presumably heal the patient and Helen alike.

We've been talking about psychotherapeutic situations here, but the same basic principles apply to intellectual debate, the arena where "don't correct error" so often comes up in Course circles. For example, Helen once had an intense intellectual debate with a colleague named Jack, and Jesus' comments on it are instructive. He did see aspects of it as problematic, especially the competitive element exemplified by the victorious Jack writing to Helen that "virtue is triumphant." However, he didn't regard the debate itself as improper. On the contrary, he noted that both intellects were "good ones…each communicating exceptionally clearly but on opposite sides," and that "the virtue lay in the complete respect each of you offered to the other's intellect." The problems, in his view, didn't stem from error correcting in itself, but from Helen and Jack's failure to simultaneously see past the errors to the truth in each other. While they did respect each other, "neither of you was respecting all of the other.…The omission was the Soul"-the true Identity that they shared.

Finally, let us not forget Mrs. Albert, whom Jesus praised for correcting Helen's error about her name "without hostility or embarrassment." Mrs. Albert, Jesus said, wasn't upset about the error because she didn't identify with her name; it was just a meaningless symbol. She made the correction simply because Helen was "inaccurate." She clearly didn't make Helen's error real even as she corrected it, but looked past it to what really mattered.

Conclusion: Correcting your brother's errors is sometimes necessary, but you must simultaneously look past them to the truth that both of you are not sinful egos but holy Sons of God

We've seen in all of these examples the same basic pattern, the pattern that I believe the "Correction of Error" section is really trying to teach. The problem is that we have a tendency to be vigilant for other people's ego errors. Our ego is watching like a hawk for the errors of other egos, ready to swoop in for the kill. Unfortunately, when we do this, we make those errors real and reinforce the ego identity of everyone involved. This is the issue the section has with correcting errors: Our focus on our brother's errors keeps the ego fat and happy.

But based on all we've seen, the solution is not a simplistic and impossible-to-follow rule that says we must never correct anyone's error at any time for any reason. There are times when correcting a brother's error truly is necessary (though there are undoubtedly many times when it is not). But we must learn to do it in a new way. In this new way, we take a dual stance: Even as we are correcting an error, we simultaneously look past it to the truth in the person we are correcting. Even as our words say "I believe that you are wrong in this particular matter," our hearts say "I affirm that you are right in the sense that really matters-you are a Son of God."

What a beautiful and eminently practical picture of how to be a true healer! Yes, we do correct errors when it is loving to do so. We take the scissors away from the baby. We guide our developmentally disabled son so he doesn't fall off the cliff. We gently point out the pitfalls our patients are falling into. We respectfully engage in intellectual debate. We might even correct someone who gets our name wrong. But all the while, our focus is on what matters most of all: seeing the holy Son of God in everyone. This is what heals our brothers and ourselves. This is what transforms our error correcting from egoic condemnation to loving guidance. Isn't this better than banging our heads against the wall trying to accomplish the excruciating and impossible task of never pointing out a brother's error?

What do you think? Let's talk about this. Send me your feedback. You can even point out my errors.