The Four Agreements: Don’t Make Assumptions

January 24, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 24, 2016

“The 4 Agreements – Don’t Make Assumptions”
Excerpts from Proverbs

Thousands of years ago, the Toltec were known throughout southern Mexico as “women and men of knowledge”. Anthropologists have spoken of the Toltec as a nation or a race, but in fact, the Toltec were scientists and artists who formed a society to explore and conserve the spiritual knowledge and practices of the ancient ones. They came together at the ancient city of pyramids outside Mexico City known as the place where “Man Becomes God.” (sic)

Though Toltec wisdom remained secret for hundreds of years, ancient prophecies foretold the time when it would be necessary to return the wisdom to the people. Don Miguel Ruiz has shared some of that wisdom with us in a little book “The 4 Agreements”. Each week in January, we have been building on this knowledge with new principles.

The first week we discovered the most important – be impeccable with your word. This not only means to be honest; it also means to weigh carefully all the thoughts we think and the words we speak. As Proverbs 12:14 states, “From the fruit of the mouth one is filled with good things.”

Last week we discussed the 2nd Toltec principle – don’t take anything personally. Whether it is positive or negative, what is said about a person isn’t about them. It’s about the sender of that message. Last week, several of you took the opportunity to praise my preaching… and then reminded me that I couldn’t take the compliment personally! As Proverbs 11:27 says, “Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it.”

Today’s agreement is: don’t make assumptions. Certainly this is not advice limited to Toltec wisdom. Proverbs 12:17 & 18 in the Hebrew Bible echoes this truth: “Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Many of us were told by our parents and teachers about the dangers of making assumptions and that old adage that assumptions make an “ass out of you and me”. If you are reading along with me in Ruiz’s book, you can see that he takes an idea that seems intuitive and teaches it in depth.

One young man spoke of a date he had when he was in college. He and a woman were together for a great dinner, a few drinks, and it seemed to him that they were making a great connection. It started to get late so they agreed to call it a night. Before they parted, he carefully approached to give her a good night kiss but was stopped cold. She made it clear that there was to be no kiss. That night, he went over in his head all the things that must have gone wrong. Why else would she have stopped him from a casual kiss? He decided she must not have felt about the date the same way he had. So he didn’t call her again.

A year later, the two ran into each other and spoke. He found out that she actually really liked him on that day, but just had a general rule about not kissing on the first date. He let his mind make an assumption and it ruined the opportunity for a relationship.

When you make an assumption about something, you’re accepting it as true without actually finding proof. Human beings are just naturally wired this way.

The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth, says Ruiz. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking – we take it personally – then we blame them and react by saying or doing something in response. When we engage in this cycle, we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.

Worse, when we make assumptions and then take our assumption to heart, too often we end up gossiping about our assumptions. This process breaks all 3 of the agreements we have talked about. Because we are afraid to ask for clarification, we make assumptions, and believe we are right about our assumptions, and then we defend our assumptions to try to make ourselves right and another wrong. Assumptions set us up for suffering.
Have you ever dreamt something up in your imagination? Because you didn’t understand something, you dug around in your head to explain it and then when the truth came out, you found out that it wasn’t what you thought at all? Isaac Asimov said “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them of every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

One way to surface your unconscious beliefs and assumptions about others is to look for situations in your life where you honestly believe you want to act one way, but find yourself not doing what you think you want, or getting what you believe you are after. Look for situations where there is a disconnect between what you want and what is happening.

Mike Leary was telling me that much of his counseling and work with people is aligned with the principles I’ve been talking about from this book. He mentioned that he works with people to discover the words and images are in their minds – the things that shape them and inform how they act and react. Counseling is the process, then, of changing those internal concepts so that they can act and react from healthier presuppositions.

Making assumptions in our relationships at home or at work causes untold problems. Often we make the assumption that our friends, co-workers and family know what we think and that we don’t have to say it. We also tend to assume that they are going to do what we want (or hope they will do) because they know us so well. But if they don’t do what we assume they should do, we end up feeling hurt and sometimes we even say, “You should have known”.

Making assumptions leads to a lot of fights, a lot of difficulties, a lot of misunderstandings with people we supposedly love. There was a couple in a church I served a long time ago. They were the kind of people every minister loves to have in the church. They volunteered almost full time. They took care of some of the dirtiest and hardest work around the church. The woman, whom I will call Jane, was in charge of the outreach ministry to the poor. This church was in the inner city and opened its doors to homeless and impoverished people twice a week for food, clothing, assistance with bills, and other needs. Jane was responsible for coordinating this mammoth project. She collected cash and organized the items donated. She worked to organize the food pantry and clothes closets and was there every Tuesday and Thursday to receive applications and to hand out donations.

Most everyone in the church knew Jane and her husband and admired them. Until… someone in the church donated hand embroidered white tea towels. Instead of putting them in the donation pile, Jane took them home and sold them at her annual garage sale. Someone from the church saw those donated tea towels at the sale and immediately assumed that Jane was not being honest about the nice things that were donated. Instead of coming to me as the pastor, the church member went around the church talking about how she had seen several things at the garage sale that were clearly donated to the church and that Jane was personally profiting from them.

Soon, the gossip had grown and folks began to make other assumptions about Jane and her husband. They found all kinds of reasons to be suspicious and looked for reasons to justify the rumors. If Jane didn’t count money out in the open, she was suspect. If Jane turned down one of the clients at the food pantry, it was because she was saving things back for herself. This kind of “evidence” continued to pile up against Jane.

One day I asked Jane about the infamous tea towels. Occasionally, she explained, she received impractical items as donations. Over the years, she had learned to save out these items that would not be helpful to our clients and turned them into cash, which was returned to the church’s outreach fund. The cash could actually purchase more items and offer more suitable things that were needed.

This whole saga was caused by one assumption made by someone who attended a garage sale and didn’t bother to ask about what she saw – she assumed. The result was:
* Broken long-term friendships,
* damaged reputations,
* Suspicion of the outreach program
* Disruption to the ministries of the church
* Personal pain and hurt feelings

It is very interesting how the human mind works. We have the need to justify everything, to explain and understand everything, in order to feel safe. We have millions of questions that need answers because there are so many things that they reasoning mind cannot explain. It is not as important that the answer is correct; just the answer itself makes us feel safe. And that is why we make assumptions.

If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. These assumptions are made so fast and unconsciously most of the time because we already have made assumptions that corroborate the idea.

We also like to make the assumption that everyone sees life the way we do. We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, judge the way we judge, and hurt the way we hurt. This, says Ruiz, is why we have a fear of being ourselves around others. Because we think everyone else will judge us, hurt us, and blame us as we do ourselves.

Real love, however, is accepting other people the way they are without trying to change them. Remember from last week, all of us are made in the image of God – we are already blessed and good. Why then do we want to evaluate and judge others?

The way to keep yourself from making assumptions, says Ruiz, is to ask questions. Have the courage to ask questions until you are clear as you can be, and even then do not assume you know all there is to know about a given situation. This is the path to personal freedom!