To celebrate the inauguration of a new president in America I started reading Barack Obama’s book Dreams From My Father. In it there’s a story about his father (also named Barack) at college in Hawaii in 1961 or 1962.
One night he, his father-in-law and some friends went out for a drink. There was a white man at the bar who was annoyed that a non-white was allowed to drink at the same bar. He voiced his opinions loudly. (This was within six years of Rosa Parks being arrested for saying no, on a bus, to racial segregation.) Barack Snr. heard the comments as did his friends, who anticipated a fight. Instead, he went over to the man and “proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream and the Universal rights of man”. It ended peacefully. Something about this story got me thinking.
At the Access your Calm course we touched on The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, in particular the Book of Law, a metaphorical list of rules that we each learned as children and still carry around with us. As children we were taught to obey the laws and we still feel guilty if we disobey them. Unfortunately, it’s easy to disobey them, as the laws often contradict each other. So we find ourselves feeling guilty a lot. We’re stuck in the “be a good child” mode and if we’re breaking the rules then we’re not being a good child. Of course in the grownup world where we live we don’t want everyone to know that we’re not good so we cover up. We act “normal” and discuss our good beliefs and what should be everyone’s beliefs. But underneath it all we believe we’re “bad”, because we can’t keep the rules, all the rules. So, when we are accused of some “fault” and we are upset, it is because beneath our carefully held veneer of acting normal, we believe the accusation.
For example, you’re taking a coffee break in the kitchen at work and a colleague passes and jokes, “You’re always in here, do you ever do any work?” and then continues on walking. Depending on your Book of Law rules, you may or may not take offense at this remark. For example if one of your rules says Be conscientious and another Don’t be lazy, then you will probably take offense. And you may carry the pain of it around with you all day (long after the colleague has forgotten their throw away remark). You may say and believe “she hurt me”, but in truth you have hurt yourself. By the way, this is true even if the colleague believed what she said, but that’s her issues!
We can realise that the Book of Law is just an illusion, albeit one that was very necessary when we were growing to maturity. Now we can write our own book and it will include some of the old rules and some new. And crucially, we can trust that we are intrinsically good, and begin to believe that as a new rule.
So when I read the story about Barack’s dad I saw it like this – When Barack Obama Snr. heard the racist remarks directed to him he did not believe them. He didn’t have any rules in his Book of Law about skin colour, he didn’t have any rules about him being less than or repressed by, white people. Barack Obama Snr was the son of an elder of his tribe on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. He won a scholarship to study in Nairobi and was selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend University in America and afterwards to return to Kenya. He was the first African student at the University of Hawaii and he graduated within three years, top of his class. He trusted that he was intrinsically good and he believed that as a rule.
In summary – An opinion about you doesn’t shake you, hurt you, or offend you – unless you believe it.
When the remark was made at the bar, Obama Snr. saw it for what it was – an uneducated and flawed opinion, and he set about reeducating the individual! No offense was taken, as the person was obviously (to Obama) misguided. Obama Snr. had the option to walk away, or stay and teach. He choose to stay and teach. Fighting wasn’t an option, there was nothing to fight for, nothing to defend.
The next time someone “hurts you” or “offends you”, would it be useful to consider that they have given you some valuable information? Have they have uncovered a rule from your Book of Law that you believed you were guilty of breaking?
You have a choice – be offended and blame “them” …… or …… become aware of your conflicting rules. What would be the most useful choice for you?
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”
I met my friend Monica, for lunch today and we discussed this topic. She recalled a situation that occurred over 25 years ago. She was living abroad with her husband and young daughter. One day she discovered that a “friend” was spreading a rumour that Monica’s husband was not the father of their daughter. My friend thought this hilarious as her daughter looked so like her husband no sane person could doubt her parentage. And of course Monica herself also knew for sure who the father was. So rather than feel offended, my friend was chuffed (like Oscar Wilde) that she was being talked about!