How to be with sick people

I did a class for the Circle Course Community yesterday on how to be with sick people, and the basic idea in it seemed important enough that I wanted to write it up here.

I think as Course students we often find ourselves caught in a dilemma. Do we just go along with the appearance of sickness, offering our sympathy and condolences, and end up feeling that we have betrayed our spiritual principles. Or do we swing to the other extreme and try to help the sick person understand the spiritual principles that could help heal the sickness, and end up being callous and preachy? A friend of mine calls this “platitudinal healing,” which I think captures it perfectly.

The Course’s answer, I believe, is to worry less about what we say and more about how we see the other person. That perception is the real source of what we say and do. That is what will be subtly communicated by our words and deeds. And that perception can either reinforce the sickness or lift the person out of it.

How do we see sick people? The answer, says the Course, is to see them as not sick, as whole, as in the Kingdom rather than absent from it (T 7.II.1:2 3). We see the light in them, refusing to let our sight be blocked by “the density of the fog that obscures it” (T-12.II.2:1). And we see them as one with us, for it is their belief in separateness that has made them sick. We don’t join with their dream of sickness, but we do, however, join with them (T-28.IV.2:5).

This sight of the other perception as healed, whole, and not separate is the actual force that heals. It is not, therefore, a matter of saying the right words. It is the simple presence of a person who has this perception that is the healing factor. The Manual talks about patients who “do not realize they have chosen sickness” (M-5.III.1:6). Then it says that the remedy is not telling them that they have chosen sickness. Rather, it is the presence of a mind who sees things differently:

To them God’s teachers come, to represent another choice which they had forgotten. The simple presence of a teacher of God is a reminder. His thoughts ask for the right to question what the patient has accepted as true. As God’s messengers, His teachers are the symbols of salvation. (M-5.III.2:1-4)

The teacher of God, then, represents or symbolizes. His thoughts ask the patient to choose differently. His simple presence reminds him there is another way. Notice how in each sentence, it is not the teacher’s words that heal. It is what the teacher’s state of mind stands for.

So the first thing is to cultivate and then protect that state of mind. But once we have done that, how do we express that state? True, this state will heal even without expression, but it will often do far more good if it is expressed. The following story from Helen’s early notes, I feel, is the perfect example of how to express this other state of mind.

The story is that a friend of hers named Dave Diamond was dying of brain cancer and she wrote about a visit to him in his final days, at a time when she was being particularly careful to ask for guidance from Jesus about what to do:

I went into the room (under instructions), and spoke to Dave, who was very groggy. Everytime he opened his eyes I said, “we all love you, so don’t be afraid.” Not aloud, I prayed that he would be able to love everybody in return, (this too was under instruction), having been told, (I think on Great Authority) that his only real danger came from lacks in this connection.

Notice that she acts on two different levels. First, there is the physical level. She visits Dave’s room (“under instructions”) and then says to him whenever he opened his eyes, “We all love you, so don’t be afraid.” If you can imagine being Dave, this would be a very comforting thing to hear. There is no metaphysical profundity to it, but neither is there sympathy. Helen manages to avoid both poles in what she says to him. She instead finds a middle ground composed of simple loving comfort and relief from fear.

Second, there is the mental level. On this level, she is able to be more direct, to speak more about the real issues, to say the things that would simply be too direct to be helpful if said out loud. Jesus tells her that Dave’s “only real danger” comes not from others not loving him, but from his own lack of love. She is therefore guided to silently pray “that he would be able to love everybody in return.” This is what Dave really needs in order to heal; he himself needs to replace his lovelessness with love. But it would not be particularly comforting to tell him this on his deathbed.

Thus, in addition to the role Helen plays on the outward level, she plays an equally active role on the inward level. And this second, undercover role is something we can flesh out by looking at other instances in which she reports praying for people. One is an impassioned prayer for Dave, recorded earlier in her notebooks, and the other is a prayer for her husband Louis, recorded right after the above story.

Both prayers show this same undercover role in much greater detail. In both cases, her prayers are acts of speaking not to God, but directly to the other person at an unconscious level. She addresses the unconscious beliefs that are the real source of his problem and tries to persuade him to let those beliefs go. Because the entire communication is aimed at bypassing the person’s conscious defenses, in both cases, she receives the idea that the prayer will work better if the person is asleep while she prays. And just in case this can sound like Helen forcing her agenda onto Dave or Louis, it is clear that she is simply passing on thoughts that she is receiving from a higher source. In Louis’ case, she even says that Jesus joins her in the prayer so that both of them are praying together for Louis.

Here are excerpts from these prayers, first for Dave and then for Louis:

Please, Dave, don’t identify with your brain. Know your own immortality.

We [Helen and Jesus] told [Louis] that he should forget about the Alexandrian library [the past-life transgression he is punishing himself over] and all the rest, because it does not matter. He showed a lot of love this time, and should claim his forgiveness.

How can we be with sick people? We can focus first and foremost on how we see them. Do we see them as sick, damaged, and separate from us, or as healed, whole, and at one with us? If we can see them as the latter, our simple presence will call them to turn their minds in a new direction.

How, though, do we actively express this new perception? On two levels. On the outward level, we avoid both sympathy and metaphysical preachiness. Instead, we say things that express love, that relieve fear, that bring comfort. The point is not to lay hard lessons before the sick person, but to relieve burdens.

It is on the inner level that we can speak directly to the real issue, saying things that just would not be appropriate to say out loud. Our prayers can speak to the person at an unconscious level, addressing the unconscious source of the sickness and trying to persuade the person to let it go. We should not impose our own agenda, but should try to let our prayer be guided, inspired. Given that the whole point of this is to bypass conscious defenses, we may even want to time these prayers for when the person is asleep and more open to our prayers of persuasion.

Here, I believe, is a way to stay completely true to our principles while being both truly helpful and wholly harmless. What more could we want?