Making sense of the world and ourselves in challenging times

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Gerry ChidiacIt’s always good to rediscover an excellent book, especially in these times.

I recently borrowed The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz from my local library to have an audio book to listen to when going for walks with my dog.

What a treasure!

Ruiz draws from his Indigenous heritage, teaching the ancient wisdom of the Toltec, and the four agreements are as simple as they are profound.

The first is “Be impeccable with your word.” Our words flow from our thoughts and they can be life-giving or they can be destructive. Consider the deadly impact of the words spoken by Adolf Hitler.

We need to be particularly mindful of the words we’re telling ourselves. Being impeccable means to be without sin and Ruiz sees sin as “anything you do which goes against yourself.”

If our thoughts and words tear us down and keep us from being our best selves, we’re not being impeccable. If we gossip and tear others down, we’re not being impeccable.

Each of us is a gift to the world, each of us is deserving of love and respect. When we honour ourselves and our neighbours in our words, we’re keeping the first agreement, and this is one of the most significant keys to living a happy and meaningful life.

The second agreement is “Don’t take anything personally.” This really flows out of the first agreement and it means we need to recognize that the hurtful things others say about us aren’t about us at all. They’re a reflection of the internal workings of the speaker.

What Ruiz is talking about is essentially projection. The way we see others has to do with the way we see ourselves. Knowing this, we can hear an insult and ask ourselves, “I wonder why that person would say such a thing? The truth is that it has nothing to do with me.”

Even a compliment is primarily a reflection of the thoughts of the speaker. The key then is to know who we really are, and that the journey to self-awareness is lifelong and deeply personal.

The third agreement builds off the second, “Don’t make assumptions.”

We don’t know the whole truth of any situation. We don’t know the thoughts of our neighbours. No two people see the world in the same way.

So if we don’t clarify where we’re coming from and allow others to do the same, we create a great deal of unnecessary conflict. We need to replace our assumptions with questions. And we need to really listen to one another.

The fourth and final agreement is to “Always do your best.”

It’s true that I’m a gift to the world but I’m not perfect. I’m in a continual state of becoming. If I embrace the first three teachings, I have the confidence and internal motivation to take risks and continually improve.

I know I will have my good days and bad days, but if I’m always doing my best, I’m on a trajectory of constant improvement.

The Four Agreements compliments other great works on character development. If we understand them, for example, we can see how Viktor Frankl was able to find meaning despite enduring the humiliating torture of a Nazi concentration camp, as illustrated in his classic Man’s Search For Meaning.

It’s also much easier to understand the significance of being a proactive person who is thus able to effectively listen to others, as explained in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Ruiz’s work is as beautiful as it is insightful. The Four Agreements is not a difficult book, yet it lends itself to multiple readings. It’s certainly worth studying as we try to make sense of our challenging times.

Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.

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