The Four Agreements: Don’t Take Anything Personally

January 17, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 17, 2016

“The 4 Agreements: Don’t Take Anything Personally”
II Cor. 3:18

In 1963, a group of eight clergy published a statement to Martin Luther King Jr. criticizing his presence and non-violent tactics in Birmingham, Alabama. They claimed that his presence and activities were “unwise and untimely”; that he was “an outsider coming in”, and condemning his actions.

After receiving such a letter, one might understand if Martin Luther King had taken the words as a personal affront. Instead, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he stood apart from the criticism and wrote a reasoned letter. It was not an angry response, but a discourse of ideas. “We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension,” he wrote, “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Lesser people might have simply ignored the criticism from the Alabama clergy, or responded with something less uplifting. (insert your own gestures, obscenities, and angry outbursts here). Few would have blamed MLK if he had done that. Instead, he outlined their arguments without any degrading comment and then logically explained a different point of view. He refused to give them the satisfaction of getting under his skin and he did not take their words personally.

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus?’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God?’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Today we are continuing the sermon series I started last week on the provocative book “The 4 Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. Today’s lesson from this Toltec wisdom is Don’t Take Anything Personally. Ruiz writes, “To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our life trying to satisfy other people’s demands. We have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else. We create an image of perfection, but we can’t fit this image. We create the image in our minds but the image is not real. We will never be perfect from this point of view.”

This is a very important concept to understand. It starts when we are very young – our attempts to gain the acceptance and love of others. We alter our very lives to gain people’s praise and encouragement. Everything that is said – positive or negative – we internalize and evaluate.

In contrast, our faith tells us that we are made in the image of God. When each of us came out of the womb, we were imprinted with the image of God and God breathed into us the breath of life. We are created with blessedness. You cannot get better than being made in the image of God. II Corinthians 3:18 tells us: “But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.”

The theological concept of imago dei starts in the Hebrew Bible and continues to contemporary writers. From Rabbinic Midrash to the desert monastics to modern theologians, the belief that humans are substantively, relationally, and functionally created in God’s image is foundational to our faith. It is a deeply held truth for all Abrahamic traditions that humans are imprinted with the very spirit of God. Why then, are we so quick to dismiss the holiness into which we are born?

When a person says “You are smart.” Or another says “You are stupid,” your IQ did not change with either comment. Who you are and what you can do is not dependant on someone’s word. Don’t take what they say personally. It is not a message about the receiver; rather, it is always a message about the speaker. If I say to you “You are smart,” I may be saying that:
* I admire you
* I don’t understand something you said
* I want you as a friend
* I feel good about our communication…
Or any one of a thousand other things. But my comment about you being smart is not a reflection of you. It is about me and my perceptions.

To take what another says about us personally is to be trapped in an illusion of personal importance. This is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything really is about “me”, says Ruiz.

When we take things personally, then we feel offended and our reaction is to defend our beliefs and create conflicts. We make something big out of something little, because we have the need to be right and make everyone else wrong. We may also try to be right by giving others our opinions.

Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally. If they tell you how wonderful you are, they are not saying that because of you. You already know you are imago dei – in the image of God. It doesn’t get better than that. It is not necessary to believe other people who tell you that you are wonderful. Even if someone were to hit you, it is because of what is going on in their head, and is not personal to you. I know, I know, it feels personal!

When I was in college, I had packed all of my clothes into the backseat of my car. I parked at my workplace to work a final shift before going back after a break from school. During the time I was at work, someone stole the clothes out of my car. All of my jeans, my dresses that I had worn to dances, my favorite sweaters, everything. To a young adult who is trying to squeak by and pay for college, it was devastating. There is no way to replace a wardrobe when it is suddenly gone unless you have lots of money. I was heartbroken. I felt violated. I cried for days. It felt very personal to me.

Looking back, I can now say that it wasn’t personal. The person – or persons – who did this did it for their own reasons…
• Perhaps they were dared to steal something
• Perhaps they saw something they liked and wanted to take it for their own pleasure
• Maybe they were cold or didn’t have enough clothing
The point is that I will never know why it happened. But it wasn’t about me. It happened because of something else in another person’s life. It wasn’t personal after all.

Ruiz takes it farther. He says “Even the opinions you have about yourself are not necessarily true; therefore, you don’t need to take whatever you hear in your own mind personally. Some part of the mind has objections to certain thoughts and actions, and another part supports the actions of the opposing thoughts. All these little living beings create inner conflict because they are alive and they each have a voice.” And you thought you were the only one with voices in your head!

Ruiz says, “Don’t take anything personally because by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing. You have to trust yourself and choose to believe or not to believe what someone says to you. When you make it a strong habit not to take anything personally, you avoid many upsets in your life. Your anger, jealousy, and envy will disappear.”

Think how freeing it would be to take the things others do and say without making it personal! Ruiz writes about how the things people say can be emotional poison, and by not taking it personally, you don’t take in the poison.

One of the kids who grew up in the church I was serving died by suicide this week. He was 18. I was his minister for about 12 of those years. I have cried many tears over his senseless death. I ache for his parents and his siblings. Most of all, I grieve for him. He never seemed to know the freedom of not taking things personally. He listened to the poison from others who made careless comments and it literally killed him.

In a similar light, I met a person not long ago who listened to all the positive things people said about her. And she believed all of them. She won beauty pageants and she earned degrees and she believed the hype about her extraordinary life. But the words didn’t add up to create the character she desperately aches to have. She took all of the good things people said and believed them and thought that was enough. In direct proportion, her personal growth and belief in herself was stunted and her personal development has been stunted.

When you don’t take things personally, you can say “yes” or you can say “no” without guilt or self-judgment. You will find inner peace and happiness. You will know who you are, and whose you are. Remember, you are made in the image of God and no one can take that from you.