The big thing on everyone's mind today is the economy. It is almost universally acknowledged that we are in the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Everywhere I turn, I hear of people affected by it. A friend told me that at her church, congregants are offering $10-per-hour odd jobs to fellow congregants who are out of work. My cousin, a department manager at a large corporation, just had her entire department laid off, the work outsourced to Puerto Rico. And the economic slump has affected the Circle in a big way. We too have had to cut back; everyone is affected. Our circumstances have required my own work hours to be cut drastically, so I will need to find work elsewhere in a tough job market to make ends meet.
What do we do in the face of such hard times? I've been thinking a lot about this, and my sense is that while there are many things we can do on a form level, there are two basic directions our minds could go. One, we could contract into ourselves; we could succumb to the fear of scarcity and become self-centered hoarders, determined to protect the little we have against those other self-centered hoarders who would take our meager provisions away from us. Or two, we could expand outward; we could open to the limitless abundance of God's Love and become generous extenders, giving selflessly to our brothers in need. We could retreat into our little separate enclaves, or we could join together in community.
The second option looks much more attractive, of course, but when we contemplate actually doing it, we immediately encounter a major rub: If I do it, what will happen to me? Won't giving to others when I have so little leave me empty handed? These are reasonable questions. But what if giving to others doesn't actually leave us empty handed? What if it is our hoarding that leaves us empty handed, while giving to others actually ensures that our hands will always be filled?
A Course in Miracles claims that this is in fact the case: Our lives are not really governed by the law of scarcity but by what the Course calls the "law of love": "What I give my brother is my gift to me" (W-pII.344.Heading). Could it be that living the law of love, giving to others even when it seems more prudent to cling to what little we have, is the true way to happiness and security in the midst of troubled times? That, I believe, is the Course's answer. In this article, I will explore the two options I've presented, using Lessons 344 and 345 as my touchstones, with the goal of encouraging us to overcome our hard times with the law of love.
Our law: Saving what we desire for ourselves alone
Before we look at the law of love, we need to take an unflinchingly honest look at the law we usually live by. The prayer for Lesson 344 begins by describing what it calls "my own" law: "I have not understood what giving means, and thought to save what I desired for myself alone" (1:2). Regardless of how "spiritual" we may be, this is the law we actually follow in our daily lives, is it not? We think giving means losing, so we are naturally reluctant to do so. We know it is a good thing to give and we enjoy it to a certain extent, but we keep our giving restricted within very narrow bounds. We shouldn't give too much, lest we end up with nothing.
To have what we need, we tell ourselves, we must save what we desire for ourselves alone. We must look out for number one. We gather to ourselves money and possessions. We also covet intangible things like "innocence," specialness, and "self-respect," all of which we work to obtain at the expense of others. We hope that if we can just collect enough treasure for ourselves and keep the thieves out of our treasure house, we will be safe and happy.
But what actually happens when we retire behind our castle walls to enjoy our loot? Lesson 344 tells us:
And as I looked upon the treasure that I thought I had, I found an empty place where nothing ever was or is or will be. (1:3)
When we look for our loot, we find nothing. Oh, we may have lots of material things. But these things are empty of content—they are meaningless illusions. As the Text puts it, we "mistook for gold the shining of a pebble, and…stored a heap of snow that shone like silver" (T-28.II.7:2).If we are honest with ourselves, isn't this what our hard-won goodies really feel like? We all know the tales of rich misers who have every material thing but whose lives are empty and meaningless. Our looking out for number one has robbed us of the only things that are real and worth having: love, forgiveness, generosity, connection, community. We are more like Ebenezer Scrooge (pre-ghostly visitations) than we'd like to admit.
Our selfish tendencies are usually intensified during times of economic crisis, when all of a sudden it seems that our very survival is on the line. We adopt an attitude that says, "I can't help others now; God helps those who help themselves." We contract inward, and metaphorically or literally start stuffing the money in the mattress. I know this has certainly been a temptation of mine as I've contemplated life without the paycheck that I've been depending on for years. It's just so easy to retreat into a mindset of fear and avarice, keeping others at arm's length and protecting my dwindling hoard from the barbarian hordes.
The Course is talking mainly about mental content when it speaks of selfishness leading to an empty treasure house. Yet interestingly, I just read an article which claims that the same basic principle works on the material level as well. It says that as the economy declines, people stop making purchases they would ordinarily make, which sends the economy down even further, which causes them to make even fewer purchases…and so on. It is a vicious circle in which the very thing people do to protect themselves against the bad economy makes the economy worse. Desperately clinging to what we have causes us all to lose in the long run.
Of course, neither I nor this article is suggesting that we shouldn't save and economize during difficult economic times. What I'm pointing to here is the danger of retreating into a self-centered mindset, that mindset of "myself alone." If it is true that saving what we desire for ourselves alone leaves us with nothing—and my life experience certainly corroborates this—then we need a better way if we want to find the way to peace and plenty during these difficult times.
The law of love: Giving what we desire to our brothers
Instead of following "my own" law of looking out for number one, the Course offers us the "law of love": "What I give my brother is my gift to me." Giving to others doesn't mean losing, it means gaining. It is the way we keep what we have.
The first thing that strikes me about this is that it is described as a law. Think about that. This idea is not just a lovely sentiment—it is a universal law, like gravity. Actually, it is greater than gravity, since in the Course's view gravity isn't truly a law at all, being part of the illusion. How would our attitude toward giving to others be transformed if we really believed "What I give my brother is my gift to me" were a greater law than gravity?
Lesson 344 presents the alternative to saving what we desire for ourselves alone:
Yet he whom I forgive will give me gifts beyond the worth of anything on earth. Let my forgiven brothers fill my store with Heaven's treasures, which alone are real. Thus is the law of love fulfilled. And thus Your Son arises and returns to You. (1:6-9)
Extending forgiveness to our brothers is what fills our storehouse truly. When we forgive, the "toys and trinkets of the world" (W-pII.258.1:3) are replaced with "Heaven's treasures, which alone are real." Never was so little exchanged for so much.
The fact that forgiveness is the key to accessing those treasures clues us in to the most painful consequence of the self-centered life: guilt. When we spend our lives attempting to selfishly gain at other people's expense, what could we feel deep down but guilty? We may tell ourselves that we have no choice but to take from others; after all, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there and only the strong survive, especially in such tough times. But underneath our rationalizations for our self-centered ways, the voice of conscience is whispering to us: I am a greedy parasite, sucking the lifeblood from others.
Forgiving our brothers, seeing them as holy Sons of God instead of plunderers and rivals for our peace (W-pI.195.3:1), undoes our guilt. Why? Because when we generously lift our brothers' burden of guilt through forgiving them, we demonstrate to ourselves that we are not really the greedy parasites we thought we were. How could we be, when such love and generosity has come forth from us? Through forgiving, we see indisputable evidence of our own innocence—we feel forgiven. "Thus is the law of love fulfilled": The forgiveness we give to our brothers is our gift to ourselves. "And thus Your Son arises and returns to You" (1:9): Seeing our brothers as innocent Sons of God enables us to see the innocent Son of God in ourselves. Everyone is saved. As the Course puts it elsewhere: "Forgive and be forgiven. As you give you will receive. There is no plan but this for the salvation of the Son of God" (W-pI.122.6:3-5).
Forgiveness is more than just forgiving a particular grievance, though of course it includes that. It is really the reversal of our whole selfish mindset. As we see the innocent Son of God in our brothers and ourselves, we realize that we are one. We no longer see our brothers as competitors, but rather as indispensible allies. We no longer see their gain as our loss and vice versa, but rather that we both gain and lose together. We have learned the law of love. We now have every reason in the world to express our love for our brothers through kind words, helpful acts, and even material provisions when needed. We now realize that it is in our own best interests to be extravagant givers. Of course, the form of our giving needs to be guided by the Holy Spirit; we don't want to burn ourselves out with unguided giving, as the Urtext says Edgar Cayce did. But with the Holy Spirit directing us, we are transformed from the miserly Scrooge to the redeemed, joyfully generous Scrooge at the end of Dickens's famous tale.
The priceless gift we receive from forgiving our brothers is our own forgiveness. But what of our material needs? Will these be provided as a result of our giving too? The answer suggested by Lesson 345 (and also by the first two paragraphs of Lesson 187) is yes. Lesson 345 applies the law of love to the specific case of giving miracles: "I offer only miracles today, for I would have them be returned to me." How, exactly, are they returned to me? The lesson's prayer gives us the answer: "The miracles I give are given back in just the form I need to help me with the problems I perceive" (W-pII.345.1:4).
This is a fascinating line, and one I think we can all connect with. Many of us can think of times where we helped another person in some way, and later on we experienced some amazing event that gave us just the help we needed in a situation we were facing. It tends to happen to me in relation to teaching; I'll teach a Course class or help a Course student, and then some problem I'm facing is resolved in an unexpected way. And certainly one form the return of the miracle can take is material provision. After all, as the Psychotherapy supplement says about the psychotherapist (who is ideally a person who extends miracles), "Even an advanced therapist has some earthly needs while he is here….And while he stays [on earth] he will be given what he needs to stay" (P-3.III.1:3, 10).
Applying all of this to the economic crisis, I can envision an entirely different picture from the selfish one of everyone saving what they desire for themselves alone. In this new picture, we realize that "the law of love is universal" (W-pII.345.1:2), and therefore giving to our brothers is the way to receive what we need. We realize that we and our brothers gain or lose together. Therefore, we express our love and forgiveness of them by extending miracles as the Holy Spirit directs. These miracles take many forms, including ordinary acts of kindness and helpfulness, even providing material goods to our many brothers in need.
As we do this, we realize that we are not the petty scavengers we thought we were, but holy beings who bring blessings to all we encounter. We experience ourselves as forgiven. And we see our miracles return to us, just as the law of love dictates, in exactly the form that takes care of our own needs, including our material needs. As we learn that gifts to others are gifts to ourselves, even an economic crisis can become a happy time of sharing and helping and loving, a time when people come together in community and discover the treasures that really matter.
Indeed, this community spirit apparently arose, at least to some extent, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. My mother, P.L. Morningstar, recently wrote the following in her blog (www.riverofmist.com). In college she interviewed senior citizens who lived through that time, and what she found surprised her:
Almost without exception, their remembrances were positive…it was a time of shared hardships—everyone helping everyone else, creating a real sense of community. There was no longer any distinction between those who had and those who had not. Everything was homemade and having fun didn't have to cost much. There were church socials, taffy pulls, community picnics, evenings spent playing cards or games like Monopoly or listening to the radio (George Burns and Gracie Allen was popular), and there were occasional outings to a movie theater to see The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. As I listened to their stories, it was evident by the smiles and wistful tone in their voices that despite the hard economic times my interviewees had experienced, they nonetheless remembered it as a good time.
As I've faced my own financial shortfall, I have had the good fortune to experience glimpses of this community spirit myself. For instance, I am making monthly payments to my mechanic for an expensive car repair that she very generously let me pay off in installments. But this month, I could not afford my usual amount, so I called my mechanic, told her that I was taking a significant cut in my work hours, and asked if I could pay a smaller amount this month. She said she really appreciated that I called her to let her know of my predicament, and she gladly let me pay the smaller amount. She talked of how so many people she knew were losing their jobs, and how her own business was suffering. We agreed that we're all in this together. My mechanic could have chosen to be self-centered and demand her regular payment, especially since her business was down, but instead she saw my call as a gift and gave me a gift in return. The potentially painful experience of calling to say I couldn't pay the full amount on a bill turned out to be a joyful experience. We were both blessed.
So, perhaps the ideal of giving what we desire to our brothers is not just a utopian fantasy. Perhaps we can really do this, and the new Great Depression (if that is what this turns out to be) won't be so depressing after all.
What should we do to get through these hard times?
How do we apply these ideas in a practical way to weather the storm that so many prognosticators say awaits us (if it is not already here)? As Course students, I think we do so by using a formula that the Course repeats again and again: receive, give, and recognize.
First, we need to receive the gifts of God. We do this through our daily study and practice of the Course. The Workbook places special emphasis on the morning practice time as a time of receiving God's gifts before we begin our day. When we repeat the idea for the day, do our meditation, or whatever other practice the Course asks us to do as the day begins, we fill our minds with the gifts of God, so we will be ready for a day of giving them to others through miracles.
That is the next step: Throughout the day we need to give the gifts we have received to others. We fulfill our function as miracle workers. The content of all our gifts is forgiveness, but the form and the particular people to whom we offer the gifts are meant to be guided by the Holy Spirit. So, we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us to those who need miracles from us. And we let Him tell us the form those miracles should take: a silent extension of love, a smile, a kind word, help with a problem, time and attention, and yes, sometimes even material gifts to those who need them.
Finally, through this giving, we fully recognize the priceless gifts we received from God. Above all, because of the law of love, our extension of forgiveness to others gives us the gift of recognizing that we are forgiven. And just as the forgiveness we extend to our brothers takes many forms, so does the forgiveness that returns to us. The miracles we extend come back to us in some form that perfectly meets our own needs: an inner shift, an event that furthers our progress to God, kind help offered by others, and yes again, the material things we need. When we fulfill the function we are meant to fulfill on earth, "[we] will be given what [we need] to stay."
This is the ideal, of course; it is what we're shooting for. For most of us, our journey through these difficult times will be a process of muddling through as best we can as we experience unexpected changes and the inevitable ups and downs. It will likely not be easy. But I believe that to the degree we can reach this ideal, we can be beacons of light to our brothers who need us more than ever, and our experience can be truly joyful. I myself have found, to my surprise, that I am actually excited about the new directions my current financial crisis has forced me to take. There's a blessing in the apparent curse, a light in the apparent darkness. I go forward not in fear, but in the joy of new opportunities.
Let us, then, overcome these hard times by practicing the law of love. Let us rise up and take our role as miracle workers. In a time when so many people need a miracle, what else would a course in miracles have us do? Brother, can you spare a miracle? Yes, you can, because the more miracles you give, the more you will see your own treasure house filled with "silver miracles and golden dreams of happiness" (T-28.III.7:1). What more could you possibly want?