It’s Not About You

One of my favorite, often-read books, is The Four Agreements, by M. Ruiz. A major reason that I like the book is that the author has simplified the complexity of knowing oneself into four simple statements to accept and make part of one’s approach to life. Of the four, the one agreement that has most affected my outlook on life is the second one: Don’t Take Anything Personally.

Initially, that agreement may seem trite, even overly simplistic on a complex issue. It may even cause one to think that the agreement avoids taking ownership of criticisms, a refusal to face life’s harder issues. But it’s not that at all. The agreement is a reflection that what others say is always more about them than you. I have grown from that agreement to realize that both criticisms and compliments are never personal. I now accept that when a person offers criticism, the criticism is a reflection on the individual’s self-perception of the topic at hand and a personal dissatisfaction that my view is different; my view on the topic failed to reassure the other person of his/her belief.

Likewise, I now understand that compliments also reflect the speaker of the compliment and not the receiver. When I tell you that I like you (or that I think you look handsome or pretty, or that I think you’re intelligent, or whatever), what I am really stating is that I want you to like me and, by doing so, to increase my own self-awareness of who I am and to provide me with needed companionship or awareness. Think about that. Whenever you make a positive statement to another, you are likely telling them what they already know, but that isn’t your real intent: your intent is to be recognized by the other person. When we compliment people, we want them to know the compliment came from us: that’s the real message.

This awareness has sustained me for the two decades since I first read the book, yet I have discovered there is a corollary: No One Cares About You. That hurts, doesn’t it? We have an inner need to be liked, yet we have just proved that no one does; others care about themselves and only of us as we relate to them. On first discovering this, we may feel depression, confirmation that we are not desirable, an acknowledgment of one of our deepest fears.

That was my first thought on realizing the corollary, yet the strength comes from the agreement itself: one should not take it personally. Life is a struggle for all of us and our first priority is about ourselves, whether we acknowledge it or not. We find proof of the corollary when we consider what people experience in life-changing events, such as divorce or the death of another person. The emotions being felt are because we no longer are receiving the reassurance that the other person was providing to us. All along, it was really about us. We mourn their death or separation from us, but it is how that action affects our view of ourselves that is our concern.

Is there strength to come from this? Yes, definitely. We, alone, are accountable for how we view this one life, and this knowledge strengthens our power in our lives. What we think, what we do, are reflections of who we are. We take strength in this, and this strength empowers us to accept and build on the relationships in our lives. A quote to guide us:

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Further strength in this life comes also from those other three agreements from the book: Be Impeccable with Your Word, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best. Read the book; you’ll enjoy it. I did.

A Mother’s Kiss

While reading Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey yesterday, I came across the following sentence, spoken by the protagonist while attempting to put an unruly child to bed:

“In my childhood I could not imagine a more afflictive punishment than for my mother to refuse to kiss me at night: the very idea was terrible.”

The statement startled me, partly because Mother’s Day is this weekend, and partly because the words brought back long-forgotten memories of my own dear mother, gone these 13 years, and the nightly kisses she always gave me as I went to bed each night. Whether I had been good or bad that day, whether I had caused mischief or not, after the lights were out and I was snuggled under my blankets, she would quietly sit on my bed and kiss my forehead. Every night.

These nightly kisses I took for granted. Indeed, I expected them. Her nightly kisses marked the end of the day. She stopped this practice when I reached my mid-teens, and I can only guess that was a difficult decision, acknowledging that her child no longer should be dependent on his mother’s love to protect him. I know, when our own son still lived at home, how difficult it was for my dear wife and me to relinquish some parental love gestures for fear of embarrassing him. Looking back, I missed Mom’s gentle, unspoken, kisses.

Later, as I became a teenager, I recall my resistance to being seen with her in public. I was ‘grown up’ and could drive myself and go shopping by myself. Although a predictable phase for teenagers, I’m sure it hurt her to see her child moving away from her. Despite my resistance, when I needed help, it was to her I first turned for help. When I wanted to get my driver’s license, it was Mom who helped and who escorted me to the test; when my high school closed and I need to find another school, it was Mom who made the phone calls and arranged the interviews to secure a spot for me; when I didn’t know how to get into a college, it was Mom, who had only graduated from high school, who guided me to college interviews and my eventual acceptance.

Years would pass. After my marriage, and living many miles apart, we had difficulties, difficulties that I didn’t grasp fully at the time, and our relationship became distant and fragile for several decades. Fortunately, in her final years, we found space for both of us.

Regrettably, we cannot relive and correct the difficulties of our youth and show the love to our family that we so wish we could now do. So, as Mother’s Day comes each year, I think fondly of her and of the important role of mothers in our lives—but I could have done better as her son. My redemption is in seeing the joyful love our son shows for my wife, his mother. Their togetherness and their sharing of the little, but vital, elements of their lives comforts me—I look back and wish I had done the same. I continue to work on myself. Happy Mother’s Day.

Reasons

Whenever something happened in her life, a woman I once worked with would declare “Everything happens for a reason.” To her, this was destiny. So, when her department was closed and she had to transfer to a new department, she reasoned that this happened because she was destined to do something special in her new environment. When she was involved in a minor auto accident, she saw this as a sign that she should postpone a planned upcoming trip. All life events that affected her became part of her existence.

She was not the first person I knew who saw life’s events as being part of some preordained purpose in her life, but that view I have always found troubling. That perspective may give one a sense of having an ordered life, but, to me, this is a manifestation of our inbred human assumption that there must be a reason for everything, and also a rationalization to avoid facing life directly.

Trust me, there are no reasons for everything we encounter in life. Life happens. Things happen with no intent. That tree that fell on your car? It didn’t fall to prevent you from taking that vacation trip. It just happened. We regularly hear or see the comment, “Everything happens for a reason,” and we are prone to accept it because it sounds reasonable. Yes, reasonable, and that is why we accept it, instead of seeing it as the meaningless phrase that it is.

Looking back, I see this embedded belief we humans have (that there is a reason for everything) may be systemic within our self-awareness, a belief that there is a reason for our existence as the human race. More to the point, we believe that there is a reason for each of us to exist on this earth. To me, there appears to be a touch of predestination also in this belief. Did we inherit this belief of reason from Calvinism? A bit of a stretch, yes, but that 16th-century religious framework is still a major part of the Christian religion, whether we accept it or not.

This inherent belief structure further manifests itself in our unquenchable thirst to find the meaning and purpose of the universe, as we do acknowledge that the universe precedes us. We regularly ask scientists either to explain the origin of the universe or to explain its purpose, neither of which are important to scientists, whose primary interest is in figuring out how it works and how it affects us. Searching for its origin provides no benefit or knowledge.

What we have are what you might call hard facts, facts that have no reason and may never be explained. The universe is immense, far exceeding the imagination of any of us, and our meager human race on this planet has no more relevance in the broader picture than that ant you accidentally stepped on. Those are hard facts. Yes, despite the universe’s immenseness, it has no purpose. If the universe has no purpose, then those within it (us) have no purpose, are here only briefly, and, in universe time, will quickly disappear. Humanity, as a species, serves no purpose in the universe and, conversely, is the primary cause of the earth’s environmental sufferings. Purpose? None. Compared to the universe’s existence of almost 14 billion years, our existence of fewer than 100,000 years is but a small blip in history.

So, knowing that, there can be no way that there is a reason or purpose for our existence, whether individually or collectively. If there is to be a reason for us, we must take ownership and define it. To think otherwise is pure fantasy. This is not a condemnation of life or an intent to demean the life we have. No, this is the good news: our life is ours to define, ours to own, ours to celebrate. All we need is the courage to take control of our life, not leaving it to others or to our belief that there is some preexisting reason we must follow.

We, ourselves, create the foundation for our lives, and how we react to life’s events shapes us even more—but those events do not happen for a reason; they just happen. If there is a reason for our lives, it is because of what we do. That’s it. It’s that simple. Trying to bring the universe, our heritage, or religion into the equation on the meaning of life is just adding unnecessary weight to the issue. Life is on our shoulders. It’s a weight we can manage. We can do this.