There is a great line in the Course that says, “All defenses do what they would defend” (T-17.IV.7:1). Most everyone’s immediate response to this (including mine) is “Wow, what a great insight. The very thing you’re defending against comes to you, because you’re defending against it.”
But notice how twice I said the word “against” there—“defending against”—yet that word does not show up in the actual quote. It doesn’t say, “Defenses do what they would defend against,” does it?
The absence of that one little word is a big deal. In any defense situation, you have two things: the thing you are defending against and the thing you are defending. These two things are set on different sides of the wall of defense, and locked in combat. So we better be clear which one we are talking about. Imagine two different statements:
“The military furthers the interests of the country it would defend.”
“The military furthers the interests of the country it would defend against.”
Now we can see just what a difference that little word “against” makes.
The absence of “against” is a clue as to the real meaning of the passage in question. This passage is actually making a profound point about the nature of special relationships. We get a sense of this if we look at the rest of the paragraph in which it occurs:
It is essential to realize that all defenses do what they would defend. The underlying basis for their effectiveness is that they offer what they defend. What they defend is placed in them for safe-keeping, and as they operate they bring it to you. Every defense operates by giving gifts, and the gift is always a miniature of the thought system the defense protects, set in a golden frame. The frame is very elaborate, all set with jewels, and deeply carved and polished. Its purpose is to be of value in itself, and to divert your attention from what it encloses. But the frame without the picture you cannot have. Defenses operate to make you think you can. (T-17.IV.7)
Notice all the occurrences of “what they defend,” “the thought system the defense protects,” and “what it encloses.” The paragraph is all about what is being defended, not what is being defended against.
So what does the statement really mean? Without walking you through the whole section, I’ll give a short version here:
What is being defended: the ego’s thought system of death
The defense: the special relationship, with its attractive appearance and promises
What is being defended against: you letting go of the ego’s thought system
The vivid image this section gives us is that of a picture of death (the ego’s thought system) set in a huge, seemingly attractive frame, one so mesmerizing that it diverts our attention entirely from the picture it contains. The frame is the outward appearance of the special relationship, with its attractive and enticing forms, and its promises of neverending bliss. The picture is the actual content of the special relationship—the ego’s thought system of death.
The frame defends the ego’s thought system, in that it protects that thought system from being let go—by us. Yet the frame also delivers the ego’s thought system, in that the picture the frame contains is a picture of death, a picture of our destruction.
So what is the practical message for us here? The special relationship is a gift the ego offers us to entice us back, in order to protect itself from being abandoned by us. The ego has treated us so shabbily that we can get quite understandably motivated to ditch it, like we would an abusive boyfriend. So, to defend itself against such a calamity, the ego has to offer us a gift, a really incredible gift, so we can return to its arms and forget all about leaving it.
The gift, however, is really just an attractive delivery device for the death the ego is always foisting on us. The gift is ingeniously designed to distract us from this fact. That’s why it has such a huge, attractive frame. The frame is there to divert our attention from the macabre truth about this “gift.” This gift is more of the abuse the ego’s been giving us all along, just wrapped in a chocolate coating. If we can pull our attention off the frame for just a second and look at the picture, we’ll see that it’s a picture of our corpse, with a caption that says, “You’re dead.”
Now we can see the meaning of “defenses do what they would defend.” In a nutshell: Our abusive ego’s “magnificent” gift, by which it tries to defend itself from being dumped, is designed to do to us what the ego always does to us—abuse us.
It’s an entirely different meaning from what we all assumed, and one that is clearly more difficult to wrap our heads around. But it has something quite profound to say about the relationships we so deeply crave and so highly value. Can we see the special relationship, the most prized gift in this world, as a box of chocolates the ego gives us to defend itself from being let go, a box whose chocolates are laced with cyanide?