The author of A Course in Miracles gave us quite a challenge when he put forgiveness at the center of the Course and then defined it in a way that is dramatically different from its conventional meaning. This sends us students on a long journey, often lasting many years, in search of what this new definition is. Along the way, as we struggle to bend our mind around this new concept, we usually acquire a number of ideas about forgiveness that may not be the conventional idea, but they are also not the Course's.
This article is about those fallacies that we pick up along the way. There are certain misunderstandings of Course-based forgiveness that I have heard so often that I finally decided to make a list of them. Chances are that somewhere along the way you have picked up at least one of the fallacies I will include below. Therefore, this article may sting a bit. It is not my intention to insult or offend. I do think, however, that clearing away our misconceptions of forgiveness is an extremely practical exercise. What the Course means by forgiveness is a beautiful and profound thing. Only when our misconceptions of it have been removed can we fully enter into and experience what it really is.
I shouldn't forgive another, because she didn't really hurt me. Only my own wrong-mindedness hurt me, so it is only myself I have to forgive.
The Course does say that forgiveness is ultimately for ourselves. Yet the preceding fallacy misses the point of Course-based forgiveness. In the Course, recognizing that another didn't really hurt me doesn't make forgiveness inappropriate. Rather, that's what forgiveness is. Further, forgiving another in this way—by realizing she never hurt me in the first place—is not in place of forgiving myself. Rather, it is the primary way through which I actually do forgive myself. "Only in someone else can you forgive yourself, for you have called him guilty of your sins, and in him must your innocence now be found" (S-2.I.4:6).
My real focus should be on forgiving myself, either because I don't condemn others nearly as much as myself, or because I wouldn't condemn them if I didn't condemn myself, or because the final goal of the Course is the relief of my own guilt.
This is closely related to the first fallacy and is one of the most pervasive misconceptions about forgiveness that exists among Course students. It sounds reasonable to say that I should focus on forgiving myself. The Course, however, sees the formula for salvation as working the other way around: By first giving forgiveness to another, I receive it for myself. I could quote countless examples of this idea. Here are two:
Forgiveness is the only gift I give, because it is the only gift I want. And everything I give I give myself. This is salvation's simple formula. (W-pII.297.1:1-3)
The purpose of the first phase of today's practice periods [in which you choose people from your life and silently say to them, "God is the Love in which I forgive you"] is to put you in a position to forgive yourself. (W-pI.46.5:1)
These two quotes say essentially the same thing: By forgiving another I give forgiveness to myself; I put myself in a position to forgive myself. The Course deeply wants us to lay down our own burden of guilt, but it sees forgiving others as the primary gateway through which we will reach that place.
Why is this? As I understand the Course, our own guilt is the core problem. But this guilt is maintained by the constant stream of lovelessness that flows from us to other people. It is this lovelessness that must be relinquished if we are ever to be convinced, deep-down, of our own innocence.
And if we are really honest with ourselves, if we look closely at our thoughts and look fearlessly at our relationships, we will see, I believe, that this lovelessness is there. After all, if it weren't there, two things would be true. First, we would, as Lesson 161 says, be scarcely able to refrain from kneeling at another's feet. Is this really how we see other people right now? Second, we would have forgiven ourselves. For, according to the Course, we will naturally forgive ourselves once we have forgiven others. If the first hasn't happened, then chances are that the second hasn't happened either.
Forgiving another comes from having a fuller understanding of his history and true motives and thus a kinder view of why he did what he did. If I understand more about why he behaved that way, what his personal history is, what his particular struggles are, then I will "understand," and then I can forgive him.
Forgiveness does not rest on understanding the particular collection of forces that impelled another's behavior. Would this not be a rather precarious basis for forgiveness? What would we do with the person who wanted to hurt others, not because his life had been difficult, but just because he wanted to dominate? Would he deserve our forgiveness? The Course, in fact, views all of us as being similar to this hypothetical person. When it explores the roots of our motivations, rather than seeing our actions as, on balance, well-intentioned, it sees our behavior shot through with actual murderous intent—which no one provoked in us but ourselves. If that is true, do we still deserve forgiveness?
Rather than resting on the specifics of our history and motives, forgiveness in the Course rests on a far deeper, less variable, and more universal foundation. It rests on our fundamental nature as Sons of God. It rests on the fact that we are transcendental minds whose original purity can never be sullied by any of our mistakes, because our nature is eternally changeless.
Forgiving another is based on realizing that she was doing the best she could.
This notion is very popular these days, but is this what the Course teaches? To begin with, the Course never says that we are always doing the best we can. In fact, it characterizes us as making abundant mistakes: "Son of God, you have not sinned, but you have been much mistaken" (T-10.V.6:1). This view stems from the Course's notion of free choice. Free choice means that we can choose between right-mindedness and wrong-mindedness with complete freedom. Nothing makes us choose one way or the other but ourselves—not our past, not external circumstances. We are the deciders. That is the very notion of free choice.
If we have the power to choose rightly, but instead choose otherwise, we have clearly not done our best. Free choice means that we can choose either way, and so sometimes we choose rightly, sometimes we make a mistake. Sometimes we do our best. Sometimes we don't. I don't see how it can be otherwise, given that we are free to choose. Free choice is therefore incompatible with the notion that everyone is always doing their best.
The same point applies here as in the previous fallacy: Forgiveness is not based on the fact that, despite appearances, our intentions are genuinely good. That, in fact, is the lie promoted by "the face of innocence" (T-31.V.2-4), which tells us that we are always trying to be generous and good, and would be if it weren't for our difficult circumstances. Instead, forgiveness is based on the fact that, despite cruel intentions and self-deception, we remain as pure and holy as the moment God created us.
Forgiving someone is based on realizing that the character trait I am seeing in him is really a trait I see in myself.
In the eyes of perhaps most Course students, this is one of the most basic and central concepts in the Course. Yet oddly enough, the Course never says this. I have looked for this idea in the Course for fourteen years and have yet to find it. The Course, in fact, offers another explanation for why we are angered by certain traits in people. The first law of chaos implies that we attack people because their character traits are different from ours, not because we are seeing in them the same traits we see in ourselves. It says that we have our own set of values and try to make our values true by attacking another's. "And this is justified because the values differ, and those who hold them seem to be unlike, and therefore enemies" (T-23.II.2:5). In other words, we are angered by certain traits in others because those traits imply a different set of values than ours, and by attacking those values we hope to prove the validity of our own. For example, if I value neatness and you tend to be messy, I will attack your messiness to validate my worshipping of tidiness.
On the other hand, I do think it is often the case that the attribute we see in another is the projection of an attribute we see in ourselves. However, the Course never uses this as a basis for forgiveness. It never says, "You can forgive that attribute you see in him because it is really your attribute which you have projected onto him." This carries the subtle implication, I think, that if the other person really does have the trait you are seeing—if it is not just your projection that he is messy—then he cannot be forgiven.
What the Course does say, and does use as a basis of forgiveness, is that the meaning you attach to the traits and behaviors of others is your projection. The Course doesn't really care what characteristics your brother has. It only cares what meaning you give them. Do you see them as sins or as calls for help? If you are seeing them as sins, that is the projection of your own sense of sinfulness. As the Course says, "You never hate your brother for his sins, but only for your own" (T-31.III.1:5).
The real question, therefore, is: "How can I interpret this trait differently?" Lesson 21 is a perfect demonstration of this idea. It tells us how to deal with anger of ours that seems to be directed at a particular attribute in another. It does not say, "Have you considered that this attribute is simply an attribute of yours that you are projecting onto your brother?" Rather, it gives us the following words to practice: "I am determined to see—[specify the attribute] in—[name of person] differently" (W-pI.21.5:3-4). That is the Course's approach to our anger at particular character traits.
Forgiving someone is based on realizing that I am really upset at something and someone else from my past. When I think that you are hurting me, I am just superimposing on you the person from my past who really hurt me. By realizing this, I can forgive you.
The idea here is that the resentment that rises up in you toward the current people in your life is really buried anger over the crimes done to you as a child. If you can get in touch with the memory of those crimes, you can stop putting your anger onto the people in your life now.
This idea does bear a resemblance to the Course's notion of shadow figures. These are our remembered images of people who didn't give us what we wanted. We then project these shadow figures onto current people in our lives, blame them for our misery, and try to extract from them the happiness we didn't receive in the past. The Course, however, is very careful to point out that these shadow figures are not true representations of those people from our past. They are distorted, lopsided portraits made by our hate. "For they are made up only of his reactions to his brothers, and do not include their reactions to him" (T-13.V.2:2)
The central falsehood contained in our shadowy memories is the idea that those people from our past really did hurt us. Just like the current people in our lives, they too were innocent. Even when we were children, it was still our interpretation of their actions, and not the actions themselves, that emotionally scarred us. This is hard to swallow, but it remains central to the Course's view of how the mind works. Jesus even told Helen that for children "to believe that their image [or identity] is influenced by the authority [the parent, for instance]…is an act of will on their part, because they are electing to misperceive the authority and give him this power" (Absence from Felicity, p. 273).
We cannot forgive the people in our lives now by laying the blame on people from our past. Our task is to realize that everyone is guiltless because no one has ever truly hurt us.
How to actually sit down and forgive someone is a mystery. I wish the Course told me how to do it.
The Course actually contains voluminous instruction in how to forgive. There is not only an enormous amount of teaching on forgiveness, there are also a great many concrete exercises. In fact, there are six Workbook lessons in which we pick particular people and then practice forgiving them.
I think that we remain mystified about forgiveness in the Course in part because we tend to gloss over this instruction. I believe that we often do this with the exercises because they don't look like they "ought" to look. We have a certain idea of how a forgiveness exercise should look, and so we overlook what doesn't fit this expectation. Perhaps we even try out the forgiveness exercises in the Workbook, but they prove disappointing.
This was certainly my experience. I noticed that the Workbook had forgiveness exercises. But they didn't look to me as if they would be enough, and when I tried them, they weren't. They just didn't do much for me. And so I remained unclear about how I was to actually sit down and forgive someone.
My experience with the Course has always been that, when I finally identify what the Course is saying, it is always more profound and more practical than anything I could come up with on my own. Eventually, I realized that this must also apply to the topic of forgiveness. So I decided to try to locate and understand the Course's prescriptions for forgiveness, and then follow them as closely as I could. I gathered together passages, with both teaching and practical instruction, that seemed to capture the heart of the forgiveness process. Then I began spending time applying these passages to people in my life. The result is that, over the last few years, my ability to forgive has greatly improved, and with it, the quality of my relationships and my overall level of happiness.
Based on my experience I would say this: The Course simply has forgiveness figured out much better than we do. So we should rejoice when one of our fallacies falls by the wayside. For as it falls away, we come that much closer to a truth that far exceeds our own ideas, a truth whose radiance can lead us beyond our limited ideas and light our pathway home.