Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's Not About You

It is unbelievable how time flies. It is nearly October 2009. I am 28. It has been over a year since I graduated law school. It has been almost four years since I've been in my relationship. And it has been over six years since I graduated from Rutgers and moved to Washington, DC to begin my adult life.

And as quickly as time flies, I still remember my first day of kindergarten. It was 1986. My father sat me down on our old, beaten-up love seat. On a piece of notebook paper, he drew three stick figure people (because that was the limit of his drawing capabilities). He colored one green, one purple, and one orange. He then proceeded to talk to me about tolerance, acceptance, and extending kindness to others. He told me that, like the stick figures, everybody is different. Sometimes its skin color, other times its religion, or perhaps a disability. But he told me that no matter what, I was to treat everybody with equal respect.

As a five year old, this meant that I should probably be as nice to boys as to girls, even though boys were icky and different. But over the years it has come to mean so much more... from embracing various cultures, religions, and races, to working on behalf of developing countries in Latin America, doing mission work in Peru, defending criminals, and fighting insurance companies and governments on behalf of injured patients. When I look back on my life, and especially my past six years living in the nation's capital, I feel like my adult life has remained true to this simple lesson from my father. Treat others how you would like to be treated. Be kind to others. Show respect to everyone, and everything will be okay.

Sometimes this is not easy. Sometimes we bicker with loved ones. Sometimes a co-worker or a boss tests us. Sometimes a cab driver almost swipes us while we cross the street. Sometimes we just have a bad day and cannot find peace with the world, no matter how hard we try.

Last week I had one of those weeks where it just seemed like no matter how hard I tried or what I did, things went wrong. It seemed like I constantly failed to find the right words, to communicate my thoughts, or to make peace. It seemed like every conversation ended in argument, misunderstanding, or tears. I felt like I had no options, like I was stuck.

My initial thoughts in each situation went something like this: Why weren't people treating me with respect? Why was everybody angry with me? What had I done to deserve this treatment?

My initial gut told me to react. Defend myself. Lash out. Fight back.

Then my mind kicks in and I immediately feel regret. Sorrow. I want to learn and develop from the misunderstanding. I want to understand my shortcomings, and grow from these lessons.

But my heart tells me something different. I think back to a tidbit of knowledge I gained from Toltec Wisdom (The Four Agreements, for anyone curious)... and its first, most basic principle, "Don't take anything personally." My heart tells me, It's not about you, Kelly. It may not even be about the other person.

Rarely is conflict about the people involved. Rather, conflict is usually about misunderstanding, frustration, or lack of direct communication. It is about the hang-ups and the baggage that each person brings to the conversation, that is, our little knapsack of experiences, arguments, and daily frustrations that grows heavier as we age. Conflict then becomes about how we let that knapsack weigh us down, and permit our past experiences and interactions to shape our future conversations and experiences.

But what if we unload that knapsack? What if we drop our baggage? What if we remember the simple lessons our parents told us as children, and apply them to our adult lives? Treat everyone with equal love and respect. And what if we add to that: No matter what. No matter if the person is orange, purple, or green. And more importantly, no matter what baggage you are carrying in your knapsack. Simply, let it go. It's NOT about YOU.

I recently had this conversation with a group of friends over dinner, and one friend related this Toltec philosophy to the 4:8 Principle, which I had neither studied nor heard of prior to last week. The 4:8 Principle is based upon the New Testament passage from Paul's Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4, Verse 8, which states,
"...[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
The author Tommy Newberry has created a following by embracing this principle, which he set forth in his book, The 4:8 Principle. I have not read the book, but choose to interpret this passage in the context of my past week. To me, this simply means letting go of the knapsack of crap that holds me back. Letting go of my fights, failures, shortcomings, disappointments, and whatever else ails me. Don't keep tabs, don't get into tit-for-tat pettiness, don't let ego overcrowd thoughts, and don't worry about the things that cannot change. Literally, we should purge ourselves of the nonsense.

Once we let go of the baggage, we make ourselves lighter and freer. We are no longer weighed down by negativity. We open ourselves up to the good things in life, and all that God has to offer us. And, all that goodness is there for the taking. We just have to prepare ourselves to focus on it.