The Healing of Bill Thetford
Want to live a conflict-free life? Bill Thetford knows how and is still available to lead us there. The Bible states, “May the mind that is in Christ Jesus (Holy Spirit) be also in you.” Our modern version might be, “Let the choice that was Bill Thetford’s also be ours.” Bill’s life story is not only compelling from the human perspective, but more importantly, the simple steps he took to become conflict-free, to awaken, we also can follow.
While in this world, Bill finally wanted only to be ordinary and to find sameness with everyone. Only if we are the same does his story have meaning for us. If we change just a few details, we recognize our own journey in his and can see that his answers are also ours. It is true that Bill possessed talents and assets that many of us don’t have, making many facets of his life easier than for most. However, those assets of privilege were paired with challenges that would have broken the spirits of many. He was an amazing human being, but he was human. As I am sure he would earnestly want to convey, the traits he cultivated, the ones that led him home, are well within everyone’s reach: a daily, steadfast determination to let go of conflict—the ego’s sustenance—and willingness to make peace of mind the primary goal for each encounter.
Bill’s life was not an easy one. Six months after the sudden and shocking death of his beloved sister when he was seven years old (she was nine), Bill fell ill with scarlet fever and, soon thereafter, with rheumatic fever that led to a serious heart condition. His compromised physical heart mirrored his own broken heart over his sister’s passing, compounded by the small boy’s notion that his father would have preferred his death to that of his sister’s. The “survivor’s guilt” weighed heavily on him for many years. A basic metaphysical truth is that conflict within is mirrored in outer circumstances – they are a seamless whole. As he matured, obtained his Ph.D. and began his career, the accumulated guilt and upset was projected, with severe impact, into many areas of his social and professional life.
His most dramatic and well-known distress was with his employee and co-scribe, Helen Schucman. Though they loved each other deeply and appreciated one another’s talents, they relentlessly projected their guilt and anger onto one another and fought continuously. Helen, from all accounts, was very fond of her husband and fourteen years Bill’s senior. Yet, despite this and the fact that Bill was gay, she desperately wanted a romantic relationship with him, which never happened. In addition to generic academic rivalry, this unrequited love on Helen’s part contributed greatly to their inability to get along - except where the Course was concerned. (They had worked together for seven years before ACIM dictation commenced.)
All those who knew Bill and Helen during the time of the Course transcription were captivated by their ability to immediately cease fighting when they worked with the Course. Instead of endlessly bickering – usually Helen would attack and Bill would defend – they would instantly become patient, gentle, cooperative, and supportive. Then, on returning to their professional duties, the fighting would resume. Nothing more dramatically reveals the fact that conflict is a choice. However irritating they found one another, they considered ACIM a sacred trust and would not allow their grievances to interfere. They chose to be loving and they were, and everyone has benefitted from their efforts.
We need to look at our choices; peace of mind has not been a priority. We behave as if conflict is thrust upon us, that it comes unbidden, or is somehow inevitable. In many cases it is simply preferred, however loudly we may protest that statement. After all, conflict is the ego’s most basic need; our conflicts seem to define us and we secretly wonder who we would be without them. It seems sacrificial to let go of grievances, as if the “others” win, which we believe they do not deserve, and we’re left looking weak or pathetic. There is something seductive about being the “innocent victim” and endlessly telling our stories of being wronged. And under that is the profound fear of the quiet where we might come face to face with our own pain and distress. Yes, the drama of conflict seems the lesser of two evils.
Still, conflict is merely a choice – an unfortunate one – as Bill made abundantly clear, because it leaves us feeling small, lacking, lonely and afraid. That choice is based on habit, our early conditioning, unexamined notions about ourselves – tragic misinformation.
Bill, too, had taken conflict for granted as an inevitable aspect of existence and his life, despite his fame and brilliance, was certifiably a mess. And yet, he finally asked for a better way and his request was answered in ACIM. Though the requirements of mind change seemed daunting, he was steadfast in his determination to try. Like most of us, he took small practice steps in the beginning and questioned his ability to change his mind so completely. However, he applied the “one day at a time” rule and persevered. For years he practiced as ACIM appeared and both personal and professional relationships were, indeed, healed. By the time the Course was finished, the entire department was a changed place and former enemies were now friends – all except Helen. Bill’s secretary, not understanding the magnitude of what she was observing, would periodically proclaim, “Oh, Dr. Thetford has just performed another miracle.” Or a close colleague, the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, would say, “There’s Bill, walking on water again.”
Once Helen was finally retired, (Bill had managed to keep her employed past the usual retirement age of 65 to wind up loose ends with Course production.) Bill felt he, too, could no longer stay at Columbia. He had been through a ten-year, life-changing spiritual overhaul and to resume his worldly duties as if nothing had transpired was an impossible backward step. He took a sabbatical, then a leave of absence, and finally, early retirement.
In 1978, circumstances conspired to take Bill to California where he lived out his remaining ten years. On first moving there he tried, unsuccessfully, to distance himself from the Course to regroup and see what might lie ahead. People endlessly queried him, “Well, Bill, now that you’re retired, what are you doing?” He always answered that he was practicing forgiveness, which left many puzzled as they expected that he would be doing something. What almost everyone failed to understand is that to set a daily goal of forgiveness, to make a daily choice to be completely accepting of all situations and people was an enormous undertaking and one of priceless value to the collective consciousness. As he made the choice for peace of mind above all things, he became lighter, even funnier – if possible – and more free. As he let go of his grievances he moved from the fog of egocentricity to the clear and wordless experience of unity. Bill was the first completely successful student of ACIM. He was in an awakened state of boundless joy and peace by the end of his life. And we can follow him there.
To his everlasting credit, Bill had not been shy about asking for help. When he felt the need, he prayed a simple prayer, “Help,” or sometimes the longer version, “Help me do this,” without reference either to subject or object. He didn’t need specific words because it was always about willing that each moment be a new, clean one – without judgment, without a past, without agenda. What is important for us to know is that it was not his intellectual understanding that brought him home but his willingness to keep starting over – every day. He squarely faced the fact, as many times as necessary, that holding onto grievances and guilt was pointless, always painful, and a lose/lose for everyone. One of his favorite passages was from the last section of text entitled Choose Once Again: “Trials are but lessons that you failed to learn presented once again, so where you made a faulty choice before you now can make a better one, and thus escape all pain that what you chose before has brought to you.”
I believe the reason for the resurgence of interest in Bill’s role in ACIM is because more of us are willing to follow his path, to let him show the way to facing our fear and letting it go. We need his human example to see that we’re not asked to sacrifice in practicing forgiveness. His life demonstrates that it is worth it. We do need to relinquish our defenses, attachments, and valueless investments, though not necessarily our worldly possessions if they aid with our gifts of service. We cherish our grievances rather than each other, as if they were precious heirlooms, but we can change our minds. Just as Bill saw the value of asking for help with his “faulty choices” of grievances and self-condemnation, we can too. If Bill had a profound mission, so do we. And we are ultimately promised that embracing the peace that passes understanding, as he did, will lead us home, too.
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