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.

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.

The Final Act

Have you ever typed the word suicide into a search engine? The first content you see will be information on reaching help, such as an 800 number. The assumption is that you’re considering suicide and are seeking assistance to prevent that step. As a society, our immediate concern is that life is precious and to be preserved at all costs and that persons seeking to end life are somehow confused, sick, depressed, or otherwise unable to see the value in continuing life. But are we missing the message here?

Considering suicide, people fall into one of three categories (in my opinion). The first are those who are depressed and know they need help. These people benefit from various community outreach groups, 800 numbers, and other services to which they can seek advice. We, as a society, are somewhat successful here because the individual reaches out for help.

The second group comprises those who make the quick decision that death is preferable and to be immediately initiated. Helping these people is difficult, if only because their decision is made so quickly and they act almost immediately.

And there is the third group, those who decide to end their lives and take preparatory steps, such as preparing a will, to ease any pain or suffering from those to be left behind. These people may plan their suicide well in advance, seeing suicide as the solution to whatever issues are in their lives.

Regrettably, following their deaths we cannot regularly know to which group a person belonged, leaving us feeling we could have helped if only we had known more. Their demise causes distress among us the living, as their deaths are often the result of violent action, whether by gun or jumping from a height or by swinging from a rope. Their self-initiated death by violence hits to the very heart of our beliefs. We grieve for them because our belief structure tells us they died unnecessarily and just needed counseling to grasp that a better life was there for them.

My question is whether our grief is for their loss, or is it our inherent desire to impose our beliefs on others, or could it be our fear that we are them? By that, I mean we may not want to accept any validity to their actions because we are fearful of acknowledging that we also may be susceptible in the right situation to making the same final decision.

Possibly it is the finality of the act, often accomplished violently, that frightens us? Our actions imply that suicide is never desirable to anyone, but is always the act of persons who are not in full control of their actions. But can this be true? How can we know how other persons value their lives? Consider the military person who knowingly commits an act of bravery that will lead to his death. Consider also those members of the U.S. Secret Service who are prepared to put their lives in immediate danger to protect the life of the President. Such acts are done knowing they will cause one’s death, yet we accept these as honorable and heroic.

From this, we can infer that we judge the voluntary ending of one’s life by knowing the person’s reason. But is that our right to do? We believe suicide to be wrong, but we have no firm proof of that. If we look to the Bible, we find several instances of suicide, but never any moral judgment on the act. If we review history, we find that suicide was in many cases a viable act for an individual, yet we today would deny a person of what is their right.

True, we do allow euthanasia in limited situations, but even there our society insists that it be done by a medical professional and only to relieve a person from extended suffering near the end of life. Is that our responsibility? Do we have that authority? Persons wishing to end their lives must seek approval? Possibly, just possibly, we are injecting our beliefs into the decisions of others beyond our authority, decisions that affect only them and not us.

For comparison, let’s review society’s view of homosexuality just a few decades ago. Such persons were not only considered ‘bad’, but also suffering from a sexual preference that could be ‘unlearned’ by focused education and workshops. That prejudicial attitude kept the gay community in hiding and often abused and mistreated. Although it has taken a long time, our society now finally sees the gay community as sharing similar views on morals and ethics as does the heterosexual community, being only different in their sexual preferences. In hindsight, one can only wonder “What took us so long for something this simple?”

Accepting suicide as an individual’s right may never be the norm, but it may also evolve as we continue to confront our beliefs and assumptions on what is, and is not, proper. A sign that we have begun to accept this final act will be an increase in open discussion on this topic and on the individual’s ability to end his/her life in non-violent ways and without needing approval and participation by a medical professional—and without guilt being placed upon the person by others, but a genuine acceptance and support.

That would be a new world and I have no idea on its success or failure. Would the acceptance of suicide as a normal act in any way change our view on the act of ending the lives of others? That is, would we put less value on all life? Can we accept that people can take their own life but not that of others? Would we become confused on life itself? Is it possible to learn to respect that the value of one’s life can only be determined by the individual? Or is this cliff too steep to climb?