Recognize what does not matter, and if your brothers ask you for something "outrageous," do it because it does not matter. (T-12.III.4:1)
These are some of the most puzzling and talked about words in A Course in Miracles . How many hundreds of study groups, I wonder, have wrestled with the meaning of these words? Do these words really mean what they seem to mean? They appear to be asking us to turn ourselves into passive jellyfish washed wherever the currents will take us, exercising no will of our own because nothing matters. What a frightening vision of life! Is the Course really teaching this?
In this article, I want to uncover what this passage really means, and then take the next step and attempt to incorporate its teaching into our lives. To uncover its meaning, we must turn to the section in which it occurs. That section is "The Investment in Reality," in Chapter 12 of the Text. It begins with these words:
I once asked you to sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me. This is what I meant: If you have no investment in anything in this world, you can teach the poor where their treasure is. (T-12.III.1:1-2)
Jesus here claims to reveal what he really meant when he told us to sell all we have and give to the poor and follow him. Before going any further, then, let's turn to the place in the Bible where he says this. It is often called the story of the rich young ruler:
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "…If you would enter life, keep the commandments"….The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22 RSV)
This counsel, though directed at the life of one person, significantly shaped Christianity's view of what it meant to really follow Jesus. Drawing upon the authority of these words, the vow of poverty became one of the three basic vows (along with obedience and chastity) of monastics. The message became clear: If you really want to follow Jesus, you must go beyond mere observance of a righteous life, you must renounce all worldly possessions. You must remove yourself from normal society.
Jesus here wants to set the record straight. He wants to clarify what he was really driving at. "This is what I meant," he says. "If you have no investment in anything in this world, you can teach the poor where their treasure is." The important thing was not the physical act of selling your possessions, but what that act symbolized: the inner act of relinquishing your investment in this world. Likewise, the real gift to the poor was not the money from selling your possessions. It was showing the poor your lack of investment in the world. This is what teaches them "where their treasure is." The word "treasure" refers to the biblical passage's mention of "treasure in heaven." In summary, if you let go of all your investment in the world, you can show the poor that their treasure is in Heaven.
But what does that mean? We need clarification on the clarification! Let us, then, turn to the next lines in this section.
Who are the poor?
The poor are merely those who have invested wrongly, and they are poor indeed! Because they are in need it is given you to help them, since you are among them. Consider how perfectly your lesson would be learned if you were unwilling to share their poverty. For poverty is lack, and there is but one lack since there is but one need. (1:3-6)
The first line above radically redefines the class of the poor: "The poor are merely those who have invested wrongly." In financial terms, of course, if you invest wrongly, you can lose all you have and become poor. But Jesus here is referring not to financial investment in a certain business venture. The poor are those who are emotionally invested in the world . They thought that investing their minds and hearts in the world would make them wealthy inside. Instead, they lost it all. They lost the one thing truly worth having: the peace of God. This is the "one lack" and "one need" mentioned in the passage above.
This means that nearly everyone in the world is among the poor, ourselves included. We too have invested all we have in this world, and as a result feel empty and impoverished inside. Though we may have nice clothes and fancy houses, we are poor in the truest sense of the word. We lack our heart's desire. We lack the awareness of God. Our mission, as the above passage says, is to leave our own condition of poverty behind, and to help the rest of the poor do the same. But how? The answer to this becomes startlingly clear as the section continues.
Insistence means investment in the happenings of the world
Suppose a brother insists on having you do something you think you do not want to do. His very insistence should tell you that he believes salvation lies in it. If you insist on refusing and experience a quick response of opposition, you are believing that your salvation lies in not doing it. You, then, are making the same mistake he is, and are making his error real to both of you. Insistence means investment, and what you invest in is always related to your notion of salvation. The question is always two-fold; first, what is to be saved? And second, how can it be saved? (2:1-7)
This paragraph shows us poverty in action. It portrays in everyday terms exactly what Jesus means by being poor. A brother insists that you do something. His insistence means he is invested in you doing this because he thinks his salvation lies in it. Here is the exact kind of investment we have been talking about. He has invested in the world—in the happenings of the world, in how things go in the world. He has done so believing that he will obtain salvation from this investment. That is why he is poor. The happenings of the world will never make him genuinely happy, never give him real inner wealth. He has invested all of his money in a worthless company.
But so have you. For you too insist. You insist on refusing his request. This means that you also are invested in the happenings of the world, thinking that salvation lies in them. "You, then, are making the same mistake he is."
How many times have we found ourselves in such a situation? Someone insists that we do something, and we refuse. Our wife insists that we take out the trash. Our husband insists that we stop nagging him. Our child insists that we fix her a certain kind of food. And we refuse, and not just because we don't want to do it. We refuse on principle, as a way of salvaging our self-esteem, and as a way of closing the door on all those future demands we will surely invite if we don't refuse. It is as if we are a sand castle, and refusing is our way of holding back the waves from washing us into oblivion.
I know this feeling very well. By refusing I feel like I am standing my ground and keeping myself intact. How ironic it is that what I am really doing, says the Course, is impoverishing myself. I am investing my heart and mind in a bunch of meaningless forms outside myself. How can they ever make me happy? Even if they are arranged exactly as I want, how complete will I really feel? As he insists and I refuse, my brother and I are like two homeless guys fighting over a crumb, not realizing that the only thing our fight accomplishes is to reinforce in our minds how deprived we are.
The poor need our gifts
Whenever you become angry with a brother, for whatever reason, you are believing that the ego is to be saved, and to be saved by attack. If he attacks [and you become angry with him], you are agreeing with this belief; and if you attack [as an expression of your anger], you are reinforcing it. Remember that those who attack are poor. Their poverty asks for gifts, not for further impoverishment. You who could help them are surely acting destructively if you accept their poverty as yours. If you had not invested as they had, it would never occur to you to overlook their need. (3:1-6)
The last paragraph ended by saying that our notion of salvation is our answer to two questions: "First, what is to be saved? And second, how can it be saved?" This paragraph says that whenever we become angry, we are "believing that the ego is to be saved, and to be saved by attack." This puts a new perspective on our refusal. We thought that refusing was a justified show of strength needed to save our self-respect. But what we call our cherished self-respect is what the Course calls our ego. What we were really doing, then, was attacking in order to save our ego. The ego is just an image we hold in our mind, an image of ourselves as separate, miserable, and vicious. Saving this is our notion of salvation. Yet no matter how much we save it, we never truly respect ourselves, nor feel like we have really been saved.
While we are busy making ourselves poor, we have also blinded ourselves to what our brother is really asking for. He is asking for relief from poverty. His attack demonstrates that he is poor, and in his lack he is grasping at whatever scrap he can get. The solution is not to try to further impoverish him, and deepen our own poverty in the process. The solution is to give him gifts, to help lift him out of poverty altogether. How do we do this?
Do it because it does not matter
Recognize what does not matter, and if your brothers ask you for something "outrageous," do it because it does not matter. Refuse, and your opposition establishes that it does matter to you. It is only you, therefore, who have made the request outrageous, and every request of a brother is for you. Why would you insist in denying him? For to do so is to deny yourself and impoverish both. He is asking for salvation, as you are. Poverty is of the ego, and never of God. No "outrageous" requests can be made of one who recognizes what is valuable and wants to accept nothing else. (4:1-8)
We come at last to that difficult line! Yet now we have all the context we need to understand it. When someone asks something "outrageous" of us, we go ahead and do it. Why? As an expression of relinquishing our investment in the world. We no longer believe that our salvation lies in external happenings. We no longer think happiness comes from controlling situations in order to save our ego. We realize it simply doesn't matter if things go the way our ego prefers. Now our bodies will still ride the roller coaster of outer events, but our minds will remain at peace, resting safely in their real treasure house beyond this world.
The reason that "outrageous" is in quotes is because we now see that our brother's request was not outrageous at all. We see that he was really asking for salvation. He was making a holy request. He may have been asking in a strange form, but, as we now realize, the form is precisely what doesn't matter. What matters is that he is poor and needs our help. How do we help him? By showing him our freedom from investment in outer circumstances. By showing him it just doesn't matter. Our gift to him takes the form of doing what he asks, but the gift itself is the demonstration of our lack of investment.
Think of some of the tug-of-wars you have been in: which channel to watch on the TV, which restaurant to go to, which vacation to take, which color to paint the house. Is it possible that the real pain in these situations was not the threat of not getting your way, but your investment in any way? Is it possible that caring so intensely about meaningless forms is a symptom of inner poverty? Could it be that what was most needed in those situations was for you to demonstrate a whole other way of being, free of the stifling investment in external events?
In this other way of being, your happiness doesn't rest on a stormy ocean of changing circumstances. It rests on the eternal, on an unseen reality that never changes. It rests on God's Nature as Love. It rests on your nature as God's holy Son. It rests on the changeless, divine nature of all things. As you rest in these eternal truths, happiness steadily wells up from within, keeping you at peace in the midst of all the turmoil of the world.
Try seeing one of your typical tug-of-wars in your mind's eye, and imagine yourself suddenly shaking loose of your investment in what happens on the outside. See yourself remembering the eternal worth of yourself and your brother. In light of this, see the importance of the physical outcome fade into nothingness. Picture your face brightening as you say, "OK, I'll do it," not as a grudging concession to keep the peace, not as a show of moral superiority, but as a loving demonstration that there is another, freer way to be. See the tension in the situation fade away. Do you think the other person might feel a sense of release? Is it even possible that somewhere inside he or she might think, "I want to know your way of being"?
Now, the Course is not trying to make this into an invariable behavioral rule. There are no behavioral rules in the Course. There is even a qualification to this teaching given many chapters later: "This does not mean to do a foolish thing that would hurt either him or you" (T-16.I.6:5). But cheerfully complying with an "outrageous" request is certainly one way—one very important way—in which we can leave our own poverty behind and help others do the same.
Jesus' hard teachings
This section started out with Jesus claiming to explain what he really meant by telling us to sell all we have, give to the poor, and follow him. "Sell all you have" meant, "Sell your investment in the happenings of the world." "The poor" are those who are still invested, who think that if things go right on the outside their egos will be saved. "Give to the poor" meant, "Help them discover where their treasure really is, by demonstrating a way of being that is uninvested in the world, that rests instead on an eternal reality." This, it seems, is how we follow Jesus.
The line about your brothers asking you to do something "outrageous" is just a concrete example of this way of being. Doing the "outrageous" thing your brother insists upon is an expression of your lack of investment in the world, and a gift that shows your brother where his treasure really is.
When I first studied this section, I thought that Jesus had butchered his original saying. A saying about selling one's physical possessions and giving to the physically poor became a teaching about selling one's emotional investment and giving to the spiritually poor. What do we do with this discrepancy? Perhaps this saying is something Jesus never really said, and now he is giving a teaching that reflects what he actually taught. Maybe, "I once asked you…This is what I meant," really means, "According to your traditions, I asked you…Here is what I really taught."
I think there is another option, however. If Jesus had given this counsel to the rich young ruler, perhaps its true intent was exactly what the Course is describing here. Maybe, for this individual, selling his possessions was meant to be an expression of relinquishing his investment in the world. And perhaps the real gift to the poor was meant to be, not the money, but the powerful example of someone who realized that riches don't matter.
Upon reflection, I saw that both the biblical saying and the Course interpretation contained the same note of radical freedom from attachment to externals. In one case, you are so free that you can get rid of all your possessions. In the other case, you are so free that you can comply with an "outrageous" demand. Therefore, it seems to me that the Course does not betray the spirit of the original saying.
Quite the contrary: What I have realized is that never is the Course's Jesus so like the historical Jesus as right here. Graciously doing what someone aggressively demands strikes a deep chord in Jesus' original teachings. According to the Jesus Seminar, the group of scholars made famous for voting with colored beads on the authenticity of Jesus' sayings, the following trio of sayings is perhaps the most certain teachings we have from Jesus:
Don't react violently against the one who is evil:
When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.
When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it.
Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. (Matt 5:39-41; Scholars Version)
Each of these three sayings repeats the same pattern: Someone carries out some kind of aggression against you, something that will hurt or deprive you. Rather than resist the attack, you display an amazing freedom from self-concern. Your concern, instead, is entirely for your attacker. You see his attack as an opportunity to give. You then freely give him what he wanted to take, and then, incredibly, you get carried away and give him twice as much.
It doesn't take much thought to see the parallels between this trio of sayings and "If your brothers ask you for something 'outrageous,' do it." Both counsel happily doing what an attacker asks, rather than resisting him. Both see an attack as a call for gracious gifts, rather than a call for self-defense and retaliation. Both imply forgiveness, since forgiveness, too, responds to an attack, not with counterattack, but with a gift to the attacker. Both show no investment in being treated well by external happenings. Both instead display a sincere, loving, even reckless investment in someone who looks like an enemy.
This parallelism amazes me. Jesus' teachings in the Gospels—especially those with more claim on truly coming from Jesus—betray the vision of a singularly original and powerful mind. Yet in this case the author of the Course has captured that mind so fully that the two minds appear to be one. In these teachings, we can see the author of the Course and the historical Jesus expressing the exact same vision of human interaction. We can see them looking out at life through the same pair of eyes. This strengthens my personal conviction that the two figures are indeed one; that in the pages of A Course in Miracles , the real Jesus has indeed returned to us.
If I am right, then it is no surprise that Course students have responded to this injunction to do the "outrageous" thing just as Christians have responded to the injunction to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile: with an attempt to soften and divert. I recently read an interpretation of this passage which said that "do it" does not mean do the outrageous thing our brother requested. Instead, "it" refers to love, which means we should "do" love; but again, not in the form our brother requests. It is not hard to see this as a softening of what the passage clearly says.
Our uneasiness with this passage is also evident in our latching onto the qualification I mentioned earlier (which refers, by the way, to not complying with another's insistence to empathize with him by joining in his suffering). It seems to me that we have taken refuge in that qualification, as if it is more of a nullification . The qualification seems to put the whole troubling matter to rest, so that we can go back to life as usual. Yet, in doing so, have we really grappled with Jesus' counsel to do the "outrageous" thing? Have we followed that counsel? I have studied this section many times with groups, and each time have asked the group to apply it in the week to come and come back with a story. I cannot recall a single instance in which one of us did, myself included (though we did have a few such stories from other times).
Frankly, it is no wonder that we try to squirm out of this counsel. It threatens our whole way of life. What is life as we know it without being invested in what happens, how we are treated, what food we eat, what music we listen to, what car we drive? Stepping into this vision that Jesus is laying out feels like being stripped of our skin and flesh and then our very identity.
In this teaching, as in the gospel teachings we looked at, Jesus has turned upside down our universal standard for human interaction. This standard says that behavior should be met with like behavior. If people are nice to us, we should be nice to them. If they send us a Christmas card, we should send them one. If they attack us, our obligation to be nice and send cards is gone. Yet in Jesus' vision, attacking behavior is met with its opposite, with generously loving behavior.
This seems to demolish the very foundation of our social existence. Without this law of reciprocal behavior, what is there to keep the people around us in line? If we respond to their demands with loving compliance, won't they descend on us and rip us to shreds? Further, what does this do to social distinctions? What does it do to congregating with those who are like us and who please us, and shunning the different ones who don't act right or treat us right? I'll tell you what it does: It blows the whole thing to hell. It shatters our whole way of life.
It is very easy to see Jesus' vision as a threat. Instead, I think we need to see it as a call, for that is what it is, a call to a higher way of being. He is calling us to a way of relating with others that transcends the ego. He is calling us beyond our petty ways which keep us in poverty. He is calling us to a larger life that lies beyond the confines of our ego. I think we all sense this. I think that is why history has been so attracted to Jesus' hard teachings, yet so threatened at the same time. These teachings stir in us aspirations for a loftier way, a nobler realm, yet we fear to leave the ground.
I think we need to face that these injunctions to do the "outrageous" thing, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, are not a minor detail in Jesus' vision of the way to God. They go to the core of his teachings, then and now. For this is how forgiveness looks in action. It is true that forgiveness can take the form of behaving quite assertively, as Jesus often did. But these challenging injunctions are forgiveness most directly mirrored in behavior. Forgiveness inwardly responds to attack by giving a gift of release; these injunctions tell us to outwardly respond to attack with a gift of release. They are a perfect outer mirror of the inner gesture of forgiveness. If we never find ourselves responding like this, then the essential spirit of Jesus' teaching has not yet found a home in us. We are not just missing a detail. In some sense we are standing outside the teaching as a whole.
Let us, then, hear this call to comply with the "outrageous" request as a central part of Jesus' overall call to us. And let us humbly admit to ourselves that this is a call we can answer. We may not know how we will reach such heights, but our job is only to answer the call and allow ourselves to be led. Just as we learned to walk and talk, just as we learned so many skills that at first seemed unattainable, so we can eventually learn how to respond to vicious attacks with defenseless, egoless love. We can.
A place to start
Perhaps our first step is to decide that we want to learn this way. Something in us genuinely wants to learn how to respond to hatred with love. Something in us wants to go beyond the usual tit-for-tat and find a higher way. Something in us knows that Jesus is holding out a way that leads beyond the prison walls of our ego, and that is where we want to go.
Out of this desire, we then can make an inner commitment to learning this way. We might even ask Jesus' help: "Jesus, I want to learn this way of being. If I follow, I know you will lead me there. I commit to following you there."
A next step might be to start with the small things. Household issues are a hotbed of the kinds of situations we have been discussing. No matter how dedicated we are to our spiritual path, most of us are still quite invested in how the refrigerator is organized, how the dishes are done, where the thermostat is set, whether the top of the toothpaste tube is replaced. Consequently, we still do a lot of insisting. We are still among the poor. I will never forget walking in on some spiritual seekers who were sharing a hotel room and were in the midst of a heated argument about whether or not to peel the organic carrots. Who of us is completely free of this kind of investment?
We can start, therefore, by identifying one situation in which someone else is insisting and we are resisting, either recent or ongoing. If we don't share a household with anyone, perhaps we can find a situation at work. For the time being, we might want to pick a situation in which the stakes are not particularly high in our perception.
Having identified a situation, let's apply to it the teachings we have examined. We must start first with our perception. We cannot simply ape the behavior the Course depicts. That behavior must be rooted in an actual freedom from investment in the outer happenings. If our behavior doesn't express that inner freedom, it is not a gift. It is just an attack in disguise.
Look at your investment in this situation. Look at what you want to have happen. Why do you want it? Why is it important? What are you trying to protect? Is it not true that you are trying to protect something that your ego identifies with?
Now look at the experiential results of your stance. Has refusing your brother's request brought you peace? Something in you may feel proud and preserved, but does preserving this something give you real joy? Is the pride you feel like a light set within a shining sense of your innocence? Or does it feel like a tiny spark set against a murky background of guilt?
Further, notice that you have tied your identity to some trivial issue of outer circumstance. This implies that your identity itself must be so trivial and so empty that it needs paltry crumbs to sustain it. As you insist on your meaningless outcome, see how you feel tiny, petty, and hollow, how you feel impoverished at the core of your being.
Now realize that the physical outcome you want is what the Course calls an idol , a lifeless external form to which you pray for salvation but which cannot answer your prayers. Trying to purchase this idol has only brought you poverty. Now silently repeat these lines from the Course, applying them to this particular idol:
There never was a time an idol brought
you anything except the "gift" of guilt.
Not one was bought except at cost of pain,
nor was it ever paid by you alone. (T-30.V.10:2-4)
You might want to reword these lines in this way:
This idol, just like all the rest,
has brought me nothing but the "gift" of guilt.
I bought it at cost of pain, in coins of suffering.
Nor was it paid by me alone.
In light of these lines, try to see that what caused you pain was not your brother's insistence, but your own investment. Try to realize that you don't want this investment; you are better off without it. Say to yourself:
I release this investment.
I will to be free of its chains.
As you realize that the external outcome doesn't matter, try to realize what does matter. What matters is Who you really are, and your peace of mind. What matters is Who your brother really is, and his release from poverty. What matters is the two of you being released together.
Turn your attention now to your brother. You had judged his request as an attack on you, as an unjust demand. But if the external outcome doesn't matter (as you now realize), that means he was asking for something that doesn't matter, and so doesn't cost you. His request, therefore, was innocent.
Try to see that beneath his concrete request was a deeper one. He, too, feels impoverished inside. That is why he is clutching at such tiny crumbs. Hence, what he is really reaching out for is the relief of his inner poverty. He is asking to be filled with God's Love, the only thing that will really fill the lack inside him. He needs your help in this. Are you prepared to help him?
If at this point you still feel invested in your preferred outcome, your need is still to release your own investment. You may want to go over the earlier part of this exercise until you feel freed of the investment. However, if you feel that you have let go your investment, you are ready to free your brother.
In your mind's eye, imagine completing the counsel of the passage we have been exploring. Imagine doing what your brother insisted. Make sure, however, that you see yourself doing it for the right reasons. Don't do it as an admission that your brother was right about the situation. Remember, the external outcome doesn't matter. Don't do it to be the martyr and restore the peace. Don't do it as a way of showing your moral superiority. Don't do it out of a grudging sense of obligation. Do it because it does not matter. Do it as a way of expressing your recognition of this. Do it to show your brother the way out of prison—the prison of investing in the world. Do it because what matters is your brother . You might even say to him in the silence of your mind:
OK, I'll do it,
Because it does not matter,
And because demonstrating that frees us both.
Now, it may be that going beyond this mental exercise and physically doing what your brother insisted is not feasible. Perhaps the situation is already over. Perhaps doing this would hurt someone. If so, hopefully the exercise will have at least brought you more peace about the situation, and perhaps helped you see more clearly an appropriate course of action. On the other hand, this exercise may have revealed to you that doing the "outrageous" thing your brother requested is exactly the right thing; in fact, the perfect thing. In that case, go ahead and do it.
Do it knowing that you are following Jesus' challenging counsel, counsel we have been trying to avoid since the Course was published, counsel we have been avoiding since Jesus walked the earth. Do it knowing that you are taking a major step towards learning his ego-transcending way of being, learning his path of forgiveness. Do it knowing that you are answering Jesus' call. And if you do it, please write to me with a story about it, one we can publish in the next issue of A Better Way. Your fellow travelers can use all the support and encouragement they can get. Unlike my previous experiences, maybe this time a few of us will actually have stories to tell.