Recently, Robert and I published an article on a brief passage in the original dictation of A Course in Miracles that almost certainly refers to Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." This article, titled "We Have the Answer: Jesus' Vision of a Better World and How We Can Achieve It," was meant in part to be inspiring. But a good friend of mine had a different reaction: For him, it brought up a sense of despair, because in his eyes it seems that in spite of our best efforts, things in the world are getting worse and worse.
My friend shared this feeling during a powerful conversation which was fueled in part by the suicide of Robin Williams, which had been reported that very day. His death was a shock to us, as it was to so many people. How could someone who had given so much to the world (including a lot of humanitarian work) and seemed to have such a zest for life sink into such a sense of hopelessness that he could not go on? Of course, Williams had many issues that are well known, especially his history of substance abuse, but it still made us wonder. His passing became a kind of catalyst for a discussion of despair, which led to my friend's heartfelt sharing. In his experience, many people who want to bring about a better world share that feeling of futility, sometimes to the point of asking, "What's the point of doing anything?"
As someone who cares deeply the world situation, I understand exactly what he is talking about. I too have seen that despair everywhere. I and my partner Patricia are working with others to improve the currently dreadful situation in Mexico, and we see that despair every day. I see it in comments on sociopolitically oriented articles on the Internet. I see it in the tendency among many these days to reach for wild conspiracy theories to explain the world's problems and desperately unlikely schemes to solve them. I see it in the tendency to withdraw from the world and wait for God, whether He comes through the apocalypse of conservative Christians or the grand awakening of New Age seekers. There is a real sense of futility out there, a sense that the "system" is so firmly entrenched that, as the evil Borg Collective used to say on Star Trek, "Resistance is futile."
Yet in spite of all this, Patricia and I remain full of hope, so much so that people often come to us (to Patricia especially) and ask how we can be so hopeful in the face of such darkness. This article is my personal answer, a response to my friend's concerns, which I know are shared by many. I humbly admit that what I say here is just one person's very limited take on things, but I want to share my own thought process in the hope that it might be helpful to others. I want to share why I continue to feel hopeful, and what I think we as Course students can do to replace despair with hope, so we can find the inspiration we need to offer a truly helpful response to the world situation.
The world situation: the bad news and the good news
When I look at the world situation and reflect on both what the Course material says and what I'm reading about and observing, it seems to me that there is bad news and good news. Here, I'll start with the bad news.
The bad news: It appears that the world situation is getting worse in the short term
Unfortunately, it does seem to me that in the short term, many things are getting worse—by which I simply mean that in certain ways, conditions are becoming less conducive to the health and happiness of living things on earth. I am admittedly no expert on world trends, but that is my impression. Of course, I don't know how long "short term" might be here, nor do I know if it will be only short term—I'm using that phrase based on the observation that in the past, such downturns have been temporary. But however long it lasts, it does seem to me that we are currently in a downturn.
I'm sure different people would list different concerns, but among the things that concern me most are the environmental crisis, the widening gap between rich and poor, the post-9/11 militarization of society, the dismantling of democratic institutions and social safety nets, and the erosion of civil liberties. Here in Mexico where I live, I'm also concerned about the violence that has escalated dramatically in the last few years due to drug cartels, government collusion with them, and the seemingly insatiable US appetite for their products. And above all, I'm concerned about our apparent inability to discuss any of this with rationality and with mutual love, kindness, and respect. It feels to me like the inmates are running the asylum.
Interestingly, guidance that Course scribe Helen Schucman received as the Course began coming through her in the mid-1960s said that indeed, things were getting worse. This guidance was the well-known "celestial speed-up" guidance, which I want to quote at length because I'll be drawing from it in the conclusion of this article:
According to this "information," the world situation was worsening at an alarming pace. People all over the world were being called back to help, and were developing what to them were highly unexpected talents, each making his individual contribution to an overall, prearranged plan. I had apparently agreed to take down a course in miracles which the Voice would dictate to me as part of the agreement, and my doing it was actually my reason for coming. It did not really involve unexpected abilities, since I would be using abilities I had developed very long ago, but which I was not yet ready to use again. And that was why I would have so much trouble doing it. However, people had reached a point where they were losing more than they were gaining. Thus because of the acute emergency, the usual slow, evolutionary process of spiritual development was being by-passed in what might be called a "celestial speed-up." I could sense the urgency that lay behind this explanation….The feeling was conveyed to me that time was running out. (Absence from Felicity, 1st ed., pp. 201-202)
Again, I'll discuss this guidance in more detail later, but for now, just notice how ominous this sounds: The world situation is "worsening at an alarming pace," people are "losing more than they [are] gaining," there is an "acute emergency" conveyed with a sense of "urgency," an emergency so dire that there is a feeling that "time [is] running out." (Since the Course does guarantee our ultimate success, as we'll see below, perhaps the comment about time running out means that if we don't act soon, something dramatic will happen that will severely delay our progress, even though the happy outcome remains certain.) As I look at the forty-plus years that have followed this guidance, I can easily believe what it is saying. People do seem to be losing ground, and I imagine that the celestial speed-up is still in progress. And given this situation, I can easily understand why people are feeling despair.
The good news: It appears that the world situation is improving in the long term
When I speak of "improving" here, I'm speaking mainly of the "spiritual development" referred to in the celestial-speedup guidance: human beings are becoming more loving and more aware, and are therefore bringing about conditions that are more conducive to the health and happiness of living things on earth. The Course itself is clear that such long-term improvement is happening, describing "the evolution of man" as "a process by which he proceeds from one degree to the next" (Urtext version of T.II.2.6:1) on the way to an inevitable awakening to God.
Certainly, not everyone agrees with the idea that humankind is progressing—some thinkers, in fact, are convinced that we're not progressing at all. But I think that, taking the long view, the progress of humankind is obvious and astounding, and there are others who share this view. For instance, I've been reading a remarkable book by Steven Pinker entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In this book, Pinker uses a statistical analysis of historical trends to demonstrate that, contrary to the impression given by news headlines, human violence has dramatically declined over time right up to the present day, due in part to human improvement in countless areas: the rise of democracy, greater respect for human rights (and even animal rights), better and more widespread education, a wider circle of compassion, growing reliance on reason and dialogue to resolve issues, etc.
I think this is profoundly true, and I think it's important to understand that "long-term progress" and "short-term regress" are ideas that can easily go together. We can easily be misled on this point; the conclusions we draw depend so much on what years we're comparing. For instance, if we compare Germany in 1900 to Germany in 2014, virtually everything is better in 2014. But if we compare Germany in 1900 to Germany in 1940, it was much worse in 1940—not because gradual progress wasn't happening, but because in 1940 Germany was in the middle of what fortunately turned out to be a relatively short-term detour into madness. And Mexico in 2014 is better in virtually every way than the Mexico of 1900, even though the violence today is a grave concern—and the fact is that even with the current violence, statistically I'm far safer living here today than I would have been in 1900. The lesson: Short-term bad news doesn't invalidate the long-term good news.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The Course certainly agrees, reminding us that the advanced teacher of God is patient because "all he sees is certain outcome, at a time perhaps unknown to him as yet, but not in doubt" (M-4.VIII.1:3). We have always had ups and downs—sometimes extreme ups and downs. There's no guarantee that a devastating exchange of nuclear weapons won't happen tomorrow, or that environmental changes won't wreak havoc in numerous ways. But in the end, I think we need to take the long view. Long-term progress is happening. However long it takes, the Course assures us, "A happy outcome to all things is sure" (W-pII.292 Heading). This is real reason for hope.
Toward a truly helpful response to the world situation
If the description of the situation that I've given above is at least broadly accurate, what can we do in response to the world situation? Of course, the answer to this will be different for each person; as the celestial-speedup guidance says and the Course echoes countless times, each of us is meant to make "his individual contribution to an overall, prearranged plan." That being said, I'd like to offer some thoughts about how we as Course students might offer a truly helpful response to the world situation, based on what I personally have tried to do.
Walk the Course's path
It seems like I say this in virtually every article I write, but it just can't be emphasized enough. Doing our part to make the world a better place is a challenge. It is so difficult that as part of our work in Mexico, Patricia has created a "self-help manual" for human rights defenders, to help them face and overcome their many challenges. In like manner, we as Course students need to fully avail ourselves of our manual: Our first priority is the walk the path the Course lays out for us. We need to study its teachings, practice its lessons, and extend healed perception to others as guided in our role as miracle workers. For those who have been called to this particular path, this is meant to be the foundation for everything we do. It is absolute bedrock for me. I don't know how I would function without it.
For those of us who also feel called to some sort of activism, one important goal in walking this path is working to undo the "angry activist" in us. As much as I believe that activism in the right spirit is in harmony with the Course, I have to admit that the temptation to shake our fists at the injustices of the world is very real. Every day in my e-mail box, I see new things that I'm supposed to be "outraged" about; every day, I see permutations of the face of innocence, people filled with self-righteous anger, with faces "wet with tears at the injustices the world accords to those who would be generous and good" (T-31.V.3:2). For me, a powerful antidote to this is the Course's inner work, rooted in the recognition of the illusory nature of the world and of my responsibility for how I perceive it: There is no world, I am responsible for what I see, I must beware the temptation to perceive myself unfairly treated, my own anger and attack is the real cause of my suffering, anger is never justified, forgiveness is always justified, etc.
That being said, the Course really does want us to take an active role in making the world a better place. That's what the article Robert and I wrote is all about, and as Jesus says in the original diction of T-1.III.1, we must do something to correct lack of love and its consequences: "The real members of my party are active workers" (Urtext). Of course, the active role he has in mind is to be a miracle worker in some form, an extender of love to others, which may or may not involve anything we would call sociopolitical activism. But whatever it is, each of us has been given an active role: our individual contribution to that overall, prearranged plan.
How do we find this role and fulfill it? In the process of finding and fulfilling my own role (as I discussed in another article), I have found it helpful to frame it in terms of purpose, vision, and guidance. I ask myself: What is my God-given purpose, how can I acquire the healed vision needed to accomplish this purpose, and how can I access the divine guidance I need to fulfill this purpose? The answers to all of these questions are found in the process of walking the Course's path.
Don't despair at the bad news—it is not the final word
This heading and the next are two more specific applications of the Course that I have found especially helpful in the process of transforming despair into hope. Regarding this first heading, I start with a caveat: I'm not advocating pretending the bad news isn't there. I always cringe a bit when someone proudly announces that he or she never watches the news—not because I think everyone ought to watch television news (I rarely get my news from that source), but because I often sense an attitude that says, "I don't want my comfortable life to be threatened by any bad news, so I'll put my head in the sand and pretend everything is just fine."
No, I think we need to face the bad news around us squarely and without blinders. What I'm advocating here is that we need to do everything we can to resist the temptation to let that bad news plunge us into despair. (Quick tip: Don't spend an excessive amount of time on activist/social justice websites, many of which serve up a relentless supply of bad news daily.) Despair is truly a deadly poison that ends up paralyzing us and preventing us from fulfilling our role in God's plan—in fact, the Course is clear that the ego fosters despair in us for this very purpose. There are many ways to overcome despair, but one that is especially helpful to me is to reflect on the things I've said already in this article: Yes, there is plenty of bad news, and there have been countless dark periods in history, but the bad news has never had the final word.
The Course version of this is its huge emphasis on looking past appearances. It doesn't want us to pretend that the appearances aren't there in an ordinary worldly sense, but it does want us to refuse to see those appearances as a statement of what is real. Instead, we are to see past appearances using the vision of Christ, the "vision" that is the second element of my trio of purpose/vision/guidance above. We are see all of the darkness of the world not with despair, but as the Holy Spirit does:
Unshaken does the Holy Spirit look on what you see; on sin and pain and death, on grief and separation and on loss. Yet does He know one thing must still be true; God is still Love, and this is not His Will. (W-pI.99.5:4-5)
"God is still Love, and this is not His Will." These words have been balm for my soul more times than I can count. I've used them when the grim situation here in Mexico or another of the many disasters all around us has tempted me to despair, and they really have lifted my spirits. This is what we are meant to do in every painful situation. With the Holy Spirit's help and with regular use of the practices the Course gives us, we are to develop faith that our eyes see only appearances—perhaps appearances we have to address in this world, but only temporary difficulties that don't change the fact that in the final analysis, love will win the day.
Focus on the good news—it points to the final word
Though we shouldn't hide from the bad news, we need to focus on the good news. Why? It is really the flip side of why we shouldn't despair at the bad news: Just as we don't want to see the bad news as the final word, we want to see the good news as a harbinger of the final word. Just as we don't want to see the bad news as a statement of what is real, we do want to see the good news as a statement of what is real. Just as Jesus in the Course deemphasizes his crucifixion and points instead to his resurrection as a definitive teaching demonstration that "good can withstand any form of evil, as light abolishes forms of darkness" (T-3.I.7:7), we want to de-emphasize the many "crucifixions" we see around us and instead see the many "resurrections" around us as further demonstrations of this glorious truth.
One manifestation of this theme in the Course is the emphasis on seeking out the good efforts of our brothers and overlooking the mistakes. As we look upon what people do, we are to make sure that "no little act of charity, no tiny expression of forgiveness, no little breath of love" (T-19.IV.A.14:4) escapes our notice. A few other Course evocations of this beautiful theme:
Although you may have made many mistakes…you have also made enormous efforts to help [the Holy Spirit] do His work. And He has not been lacking in appreciation for all you have done for Him. Nor does He see the mistakes at all. Have you been similarly grateful to your brother? Have you consistently appreciated the good efforts, and overlooked mistakes? Or has your appreciation flickered and grown dim in what seemed to be the light of the mistakes? (T-17.V.11:3-8)
Dream of your brother's kindnesses instead of dwelling in your dreams on his mistakes. Select his thoughtfulness to dream about instead of counting up the hurts he gave. Forgive him his illusions, and give thanks to him for all the helpfulness he gave. And do not brush aside his many gifts because he is not perfect in your dreams. (T-27.VII.15:3-6)
So, as we look upon the world situation, we don't want to dwell on the Hitlers and the Osama bin Ladens and the latest grim predictions that global warming is irreversible. We want to focus on the good news large and small: both the "big" stories of the Gandhis, Kings, and Mandelas of the world, and the "small" stories of love and kindness extended by ordinary people every day.
This is a major reason why I love reading books about inspiring figures great and small, and why I love writing pieces on real-life people expressing amazing kindness and forgiveness. I actively look for the good, and find it in the most unexpected places. A recent example: Deeply buried in an article about Central American migrant children coming to the US entitled "Towns Fight to Avoid Taking in Migrant Minors" (a typical headline dwelling on the bad news) is a moving account of a town actually welcoming migrant minors:
In the heated debates over the [migrant] shelters, the voices of some of the people who live closest to them have been largely drowned out. Their opinions are occasionally more welcoming than the headlines and protests suggest.
In the Dallas County town of Grand Prairie, officials had expressed skepticism about the plan to house hundreds of children at a former school. But their concerns were eased after Clay Jenkins, the county judge, and others went door to door in the school's neighborhood and found that residents were overwhelmingly positive.
"I was blown away by their support," said Mr. Jenkins, who is leading the effort to house 2,000 children at three sites in the county. "I don't feel like we have to solve the border crisis for a terrified child to be shown some compassion."
I have found that stories like this are far, far more common than we realize. (Another tip: Visit websites like that of Yes! Magazine, which emphasize the good work that is being done to make the world a better place.) They are there to be seen, if we have eyes to see, and they are beacons of hope in a sea of despair. They are the evidence that in the end, love will indeed win the day.
Do what you are called to do regardless of the bad news or the good news
I've presented a case for hope and against despair, yet I realize that many will not be convinced by it. Indeed, the debate between pessimism and optimism, between disillusionment and faith in progress, has been going on for a long time, and my little thoughts here are hardly going to resolve that debate. To many who are feeling profound despair, my words here may ring hollow. But here's the crucial thing for me: Though I do believe that there's plenty of good news out there and many good reasons for hope, in the end I think we need to do everything we can to make the world a better place regardless of the bad news or the good news. Even if everything I've said in this article is nonsense, we still have every reason to keep journeying to the Promised Land.
Why? First, because it's the best chance we have. Sure, if we're honest, we really don't know whether we'll be successful or not. We don't know that what the Course says is true, or that the current downturn will be temporary, or that long-term progress is inevitable. But what we can safely say is that giving up will greatly increase the odds of a dark future, while doing everything we can will greatly increase the odds of a happy future. Whatever we think will happen, why not play the odds? The late historian and activist Howard Zinn, in an essay that originally appeared in the wonderful book The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, put it this way:
In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy?
I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world. (this version taken from an online article in The Nation)
Second, and most important to me, I think we should keep journeying because it is the only way to a meaningful life. I have to admit, when I hear someone say "What's the point of doing anything?" I'm truly baffled. I understand feeling despondent because success seems so far away, but why on earth would that be a reason for not trying? If your child were hanging from a precipice and your chances of rescuing her were slim, would you not still make the attempt? We don't do kind and loving things because we know they will be effective; we do kind and loving things because we love. True, we all want our love to produce happy results, but to a very real extent, being loving is its own reward. What kind of life other than a life of love and caring and striving to reach the Promised Land is really worth living? So, whatever the bad news or the good news may be, love. Do what you are called to do, and leave the results to God. This is the way I want to live all of my days. What life could be better?
As I conclude, I want to return to the "celestial speed-up" guidance we saw earlier. I've pondered that guidance for many years as I've watched things in the world unfold. That guidance acknowledges that indeed, the world situation is "worsening at an alarming pace." In response to this desperate situation, it says, the usual slow process of spiritual evolution is being accelerated. As part of this acceleration, people are being called back into the world to help—to use their "unexpected talents" to make their own unique contributions to God's plan for saving the world. Helen's contribution was A Course in Miracles. Scribing the Course involved using talents that she hadn't used for quite some time, so the process of fulfilling her role was quite difficult. But she had to do it and she did do it with Bill's help, because the "acute emergency" demanded it.
This naturally makes me wonder: How many of us are struggling so much precisely because we too have been called back into the world to do our part in the celestial speed-up? We see the world situation worsening, and we want to help. We apply our unique abilities to the task, but often it feels like we're in over our heads—we don't feel fully prepared to do what we seem to be called to do. We feel like one of those people in TV medical dramas who have to deliver a baby because no doctor is available. And so, between the worsening situation and our feelings of inadequacy, we are tempted to despair.
But in the end, I think, we simply need to set the despair aside and deliver the baby. Nothing else will do. An acute emergency confronts us, and like it or not, we're it. Of course this is not easy. Stepping into whatever role we've been called to do is a process. It will probably be the biggest challenge of our lives. Along the way, we'll probably find ourselves needing the help of people like Bill, who jokingly remarked, "In the beginning I spent most of my time while typing these notes with one hand on the typewriter and the other on Helen's shoulder." We'll need our own equivalents of Patricia's self-help manual. But whatever it takes, it simply must be done.
Fortunately, we have the Course, which works in so many ways to transform despair to hope. It came into the world as a loving response from God to the very situation that we find so disturbing. It assures us in that celestial speed-up guidance that God's loving response has taken many other forms as well—so many of His helpers are on the job, even as we speak. It aims to get us through these difficult times more quickly, to shorten the time our journey takes, and it holds out the hope that "If a sufficient number of people become truly miracle-minded quickly, the shortening process can be almost immeasurable" (Urtext version of T-2.VIII.2:7). Best of all, the Course promises us that, no matter how long the journey takes, we will make it. I know—we hear that and say "Yeah, whatever, maybe in a billion lifetimes." But let's not let our cynicism cheat us out of the joy this unspeakably good news can bring us—we will make it:
Forget not once this journey is begun the end is certain. Doubt along the way will come and go and go to come again. Yet is the ending sure. No one can fail to do what God appointed him to do. When you forget, remember that you walk with Him and with His Word upon your heart. Who could despair when hope like this is his? Illusions of despair may seem to come, but learn how not to be deceived by them. Behind each one there is reality and there is God. Why would you wait for this and trade it for illusions, when His Love is but an instant farther on the road where all illusions end? The end is sure and guaranteed by God. (C-Ep.1:1-10)
So, let us learn how not to be deceived when illusions of despair come. Indeed, who can despair when hope like this is his? Let us go on our blessed way and, with God's help, offer a truly helpful response to the challenging world situation we are facing. I leave you with the exhortation that Mother Antonia, the "Prison Angel of Tijuana" who devoted her life to transforming despair into hope, gave to Patricia and me as we resolved to do our part in this holy work: "Get busy!"