I’ve mentioned A Course in Miracles (ACIM or The Course, henceforth) before, and we return to it here with Lesson 5 of the workbook: “I am never upset for the reason I think.”
We are asked to take a few moments each day to notice what is upsetting us and apply this lesson. For example, “I am not angry about police violence for the reason I think” or “I do not hate this sticker on my apple for the reason I think.” The upsets can be big or small and cover all manner of forms (anger, worry, hatred, jealousy, depression, etc.). Although we perceive difference in size and manner of upset, the Course insists that “form does not matter” and that “Applying the same idea to each [upset] separately is the first step in ultimately recognizing they are all the same.” In other words, even the smallest upset is as disturbing to our peace of mind as the largest.
My initial reaction to the lesson was anger: it sounds too similar to that parental accusation of overreacting. It’s not that bad, Cindy. You’re not thinking clearly. But I trust ACIM, so I dove in (after all, I am not angry about this lesson for the reason I think). Here’s a sampling of what I learned:
Upset #1 (“small”): Brushing my teeth.
I do not like to brush my teeth. I do it anyway, twice a day, and I do it well. Nine out of 10 dentists are cautiously impressed with how well I clean my teeth. Impressed at the lack of plaque and cautious because apparently I brush so vigorously that I have caused my gums to recede. For this reason, they (the dentists) have convinced me to invest in an electric toothbrush that stops when you press it too hard against your teeth. But the electric toothbrush forces me to brush for two solid minutes before it shuts off. Kimmy Schmidt advises taking difficult situations 10 seconds at a time because “you can stand anything for 10 seconds.” Some might argue that 10 seconds of waterboarding or other torture seems longer than 10 seconds of teeth-brushing, but I don’t know—maybe the suffering we endure fills our capacity for suffering, whether it’s teeth-cleaning or being repeatedly brought to near-drowning.
Anyway. I deal with my annoyance by moving around. If I can use that two minutes to accomplish something other than cleaning my teeth, it feels more bearable. So I wander from the bathroom to the living room and open all of the blinds (or close them at night). I straighten piles of books or papers. I’ve tried to water the plant but end up spilling either water or glops of toothpaste. Still, every morning and evening I have a moment of soft despair, knowing I will have to brush my teeth again.
I am not annoyed by brushing my teeth for the reason I think.
If you tell me I’m not upset for the reason I think, I’ll immediately feel challenged to list all of the possible reasons. See? my list will say. Nothing gets past my unconscious!
So here’s why I think I’m annoyed, starting at the surface and going deeper:
1. Teeth-brushing adds up to four minutes a day of complete boredom (four and a half, if you include flossing, which I do, by golly!).
2. There is no end. I will have to brush my teeth every day and every night until the day I die with all of my teeth intact.
3. My annoyance covers up a fear that I’m not doing it right, based on a childhood experience of not being able to brush away the red stains from the dental-education pills they gave us in school.
4. Brushing my teeth forces me to be in the moment, reminding me of my fear of the moment, of getting stuck there and never having fun again.
5. Brushing my teeth is, at its most basic, my effort to be good. I have labored under the call to goodness my entire life. I loathe obligation and yet am too fearful to break the rules.
Knowing ACIM, the real reason probably has most to do with number 5. Fear comes from lack of love and is the root of all negative emotions. I only brush my teeth because I think I have to brush my teeth in order to be good, but in truth, I am already perfect, even if my teeth fall out. Better yet, my teeth are part of the illusion of form, and although I may think I’m bound by this illusory world’s rules of cause and effect, in reality I can transcend them. If I believe in my perfection fully, I can think my teeth into perfect health. But because I still labor under the delusion that I have to brush my teeth, I have to brush them, and this inability to transcend form feeds my unconscious anger and fear, which surfaces as an ongoing annoyance.
Done and done.
Upset #2 (“large”): A video going around Facebook:
It’s a Candid Camera-type video of a man pretending to be homeless in LA and offering people money as they walk by. The actor, a healthy, fit-looking man wearing a muscle shirt/hoodie, holds a cardboard sign that says, “No one has ever gone poor by giving.” Several people swear at him when he offers them $10 and tell him, in various ways, to piss off. One woman engages with him politely at first and then seems to get upset when he offers her money, “Are you kidding?” she says, and walks away. Two people kindly try to give him money instead. He almost gets into a fight with a passerby at the end, who gets miffed when actor accuses him of being pretentious.
The point the video wants to make is that people are mostly greedy and arrogant and should instead be giving and humble. My reactions to it cycled quickly through the following:
1. Holy moley, people are mean!
2. What an interesting sociological exercise!
3. I’d better make sure I’m nice to everyone all the time.
4. Um, this guy pretending to be homeless is kind of self-righteous.
5. Yes, this guy’s just being a confrontational jerk.
6. Stupid video.
I’ve remained stuck on reactions 4-6. If I’m not angry about this video for the reason I think I am, then why do I think I’m upset?
· I think I’m angry because self-righteousness in all forms puts me in attack mode. It makes me close off and become argumentative even when I agree with something on principle. For example, I agree that generosity is great, but if you tell me I should be more generous, I’ll suppress my urge to kick you in the shins by laying out an airtight case for being selfish.
The man in the video has a self-righteous message on his cardboard and has that infuriating attitude of “look-at-me-being-so-humble.” Plus, he’s aggressive with people (in that “I’m-not-tryin-to-hurt-anybody-so-if-I-make-you-want-to-fight-me-that’s-on-you” way). In other words, he’s out to get a reaction. He created this video to deceive people into revealing their “true nature,” anticipating, clearly, that people would respond negatively. When you go into the world expecting confrontation, that’s probably what you’re going to get.
· I think I’m angry because I worry that someone will secretly tape me someday and that I’ll reveal my meanness.
· I think I’m angry because if this ‘homeless’ person had tried to offer me money, I would have half-smiled and murmured ‘no thanks’ without making eye contact; if he had kept pushing me to engage with him, I would have felt angry and guilty the rest of the day.
· I think I’m angry because I wish I were better than that. I wish I could fearlessly engage, like the woman in the video who immediately kneels down and talks to him. She’s not afraid that she’ll be mugged, harassed, or stuck in a conversation that will keep her from getting to work on time. Some might say she acted foolishly, without thought for her safety, but I admire her. She didn’t expect to get hurt, so she didn’t. She didn’t separate ‘my’ world from ‘your’ world; she jumped right in.
· I think I’m angry because I don’t want to have to be perfect all the time in order to be considered good.
I would never tell someone to “F*** off” for trying to give me money, but that doesn’t mean that the men who reacted that way are bad people, either. Most people don’t like it when a stranger accosts them, no matter the reason. Most of us don’t like being preached to or made to feel like we aren’t good enough. Some of us are able to swallow our impatience and be polite, some of us aren’t—and this probably changes for each person depending on the day and time.
· I think I’m angry because the actor is trying to vilify people for having a genuine, honest reaction. Their reaction represents where they are on their journey, how they feel about themselves, what they are afraid of. We don’t have to judge it. We don’t have to feel morally superior. We can just let it be.
· I think I’m angry because the actor’s self-righteousness brings back childhood anger at a self-righteous church, at self-righteous Christians. I think I’m angry at self-righteousness because it makes me feel guilty, even when I haven’t done anything particularly wrong (see footnote #5).
· I think I’m angry because seeing people in conflict reminds me, maybe, of the lack of love that I fear in myself and in others.
These seem like pretty good reasons to me, but let’s look at this ACIM-style.
A Course of Love says, “All fear is fear of relationships and thus fear of God.” Thus, the actor is afraid. The men who swore at him are afraid. Watching the video, I am afraid. None of us are connecting with the other. None of us truly want to connect with the other. Our fear begets anger.
I don’t want to give up my anger at this actor because I don’t want to try to understand him. If I try to understand him, I might be sucked into believing his view of people, including me: that we are greedy and proud. So, in the end, I’m angry because I’m afraid I’ll be judged and will deserve judgement.
Only when I believe myself and others beyond judgement will I be able to respond to videos like these with neutrality and non-judgement.
There. Take that, Lesson 5. I will humbly receive my A+ now.
Final analysis: I may have a slightly antagonistic approach to some of these ACIM lessons. Also, I have about 5 more hours until I have to brush my teeth again.
 Pronounced ACE-em.
 Of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” now available for streaming on Netflix. Quick review: After 3 episodes, I’m not sold. But I like Ellie Kemper and Tina Fey enough to give it more time.
 That means the opposite of what I mean, but you know what I mean.
 When in doubt, feel guilty. (That’s my default. I’m working on it.)
 A sequel of sorts to ACIM.