Staring with Job
Job took nothing personally.
You know Job. He was the “blameless and upright” man from the Hebrew Bible “who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Blessed with a fine home, ten children, many servants, and thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys, he was one of God’s favorites.
Then one day, God bragged to Satan about how much Job feared and honored Him. “There is no one like him on the earth,” said the deity, “a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8).
Satan wondered if this was really true. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” he asked. “You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land” (Job 1:9-10). What if God took all Job’s possessions from him? Would the man praise God then?
God Makes a Deal with the Devil
God took the bait and made a deal with the devil. He allowed Satan to do whatever he wished with Job. In one day, Job lost all his children, his livestock, his home, and his livelihood. After that, he lost his health, and painful boils broke out all over his body.
Yet even the loss of everything he held dear did not seem to affect Job’s love for the Lord. Though he cried out in pain and cursed his life, begging God for relief, he did not curse God Himself. In this, Job was faithful.
Even so, he was a pitiful sight. His friends were certain he must have sinned terribly. But Job knew he was blameless. He did not accept the judgment of his friends. Job knew that fortune and misfortune are not tied to our behavior. Tragedy is not personal.
Take Nothing Personally
This slant on our topic is a little a little different from what Don Miguel Ruiz is talking about in his book, The Four Agreements. When Ruiz says “don’t take anything personally,” he’s not exploring why bad things happen to good people. He’s saying we shouldn’t accept the judgments of others, whether they are praising or chastising us. That’s because their words tell us more about them than they do about us.
In this way, God told us something about who He was when he called Job “blameless.” Job’s detractors revealed their own fears and resentments in the issues they focused on. They weren’t talking about Job; they were talking about themselves.
The Question of Good and Evil
You see, Job’s friends could not bear to imagine that fate was capricious. Evil didn’t go unpunished; the good were never so cruelly tormented as Job. They wanted to believe we have control over such things.
After all, sometimes we do create what happen to us. Maybe we study hard and earn a college degree or our excellent performance leads to a promotion. On the other hand, we might drink day and night. If so, we’re likely to lose everything eventually. There are correlations and consequences. Yet the consequences do not always make sense.
That was Job’s point. Sometimes terrible things happen for no good reason. While some severe alcoholics manage to live for many years without feeling the pain of their addiction, even with hard work and the deepest piety, we sometimes fail. Our lives may crumble around us no matter we do to avoid it.
Accidents, illness, lottery wins, the number of our children and the number of our days are none of them personal. Job teaches us to stay firm in this belief. Though he knew nothing about God’s arrangement with Satan, he still realized his tragedies were not about him.
Take On Neither Praise Nor Scorn
Yet what about the jibes and unkindnesses that are directed right at us? Are they not personal?
Remember, whatever another does or says tells us more about them than it does about us. If someone maligns us, that’s their problem. If we feel offended by their words or actions, our reaction is our problem, and it comes out of our tendency to take things personally. Whether the jibe is slight or the harm egregious, it’s not about us. Ruiz writes, “Even if someone got a gun and shot you in the head, it was nothing personal.” 
We see this in mass shootings, when people with significant fears, doubts, and obsessions take their misery out on others. If we or someone we love dies in such a way, or is disabled by a bullet, that is horrible, and we will grieve, but it is not personal. The killer doesn’t really see the children or dancers or protesters at whom they shoot. All they see is a reflection of their own fears and desires. Ultimately, they are shooting at themselves.
Not that Ruiz is saying we need to allow others to yell at us or shoot at us when we can avoid it. Yet sometimes we let people abuse us because we believe the lies they tell. We think their words really are about us. Therefore, we believe we deserve whatever we get.
If we stop taking things personally, we won’t do that anymore. We’ll feel more confident, more trusting of our own thoughts. We will believe in our own value. Setting limits, walking away from cruelty, will be even easier than before.
As we stop taking personally what others tell us, we can then stop taking personally what we tell ourselves. Our minds are filled with as many needs and fears as everyone else’s, and the stories we tell are just as skewed. If someone else’s opinion about us is circumspect, so is our own. 
Stop believing the lies. This includes the ones about how wonderful we are. Being perfect is as stressful as being worthless. We are human, and we have many delightful qualities, yet we are inconsistent and imperfect, and this is all right. If we stop taking things personally, we can start to see not just others, but also ourselves, for who we really are. We will find the courage to ask for what we want, to pursue what we need, and to walk away from that which harms us. We will feel free to be our true selves and to reach out for love.
Taking Responsibility without Taking Things Personally
This is not to say we are not responsible for what we do. Although the feelings and thoughts another person has in response to what we say are more about their beliefs and experiences than about our words, that doesn’t mean we should ignore their suffering. Besides, sometimes we screw up. If we can receive honest information about what we did and the effect our actions had on someone else, that’s a great gift. To us and to the other.
Once, while visiting a patient, I was asked by her to sit in a particular chair while her nurse changed a bag of medication in her IV drip. For some reason, perhaps because she told me this in the context of our larger dialogue, I didn’t take her request literally. Instead, I stood back a bit, toward the foot of the bed.
After the nurse left, the patient was angry. She asked me to leave. When I told her I felt uncomfortable leaving when she seemed so obviously upset, she explained what had happened.
She’d made a specific request, and I’d dishonored it. I’d made my own decision about the situation and done something she thought she’d clearly asked me not to do. I was behaving just like any other medical staff person. As a professional, she reminded me, I held myself with authority. Additionally, my personal energy dominates space. The patient felt that since I stood so close to them, my presence interfered with her ability to interact effectively with her nurse. The main issue, though, was that I had ignored her request, thinking I knew better than she did.
Responding with Compassion
If I had taken her statements personally, I would have become defensive and explained away my actions, perhaps minimized his concerns. Instead, I recognized the truth in what she said, realizing at the same time that, while I could gain wisdom from his insights and tailor my behavior accordingly in the future, it did not mean I was an insensitive or haughty or uncaring person.
Yes, the young woman’s interpretation of my behavior said something about who she was. Yet, I believe it also said something about what I did, about power dynamics in general, and about how I might behave in the future. I appreciated her feedback, for it gave me the opportunity to explore how my presence affects those around me. Also, I discovered that even though I’ve been trying for years to stop making assumptions, they still trip me up. Rather than checking out what the patient meant by telling me to sit, I assumed I knew. Her critique offered me the chance to behave differently in the future.
After our discussion, her anger dissipated. I felt relieved. Our relationship strengthened.
Owning Our Own Issues
It is true that her anger was not my responsibility. I didn’t cause it. Probably some of it was due to other hurts she’d felt in the past. Most of us, if not all of us, respond to others out of wounds that accumulate over time.
That patient’s issues weren’t my business, though. My business was what I had done. It felt right and natural to honor the pain that arose in her in response to my behavior. Even if it’s true that I didn’t make her feel any particular way, I still care how others feel. I want to be in right relationship. This means I must listen, do my best to understand, and change what is helpful to change.
Responding to Pain
On the other hand, if I had taken personally what that patient had said, seen it as an attack on my authority, I would not have been able to hear her. That would have been sad.
In the Book of Job, Job maintains his integrity in spite of his friends telling him he must have done something wrong. I admit, Job did get defensive. He argued with his friends. So maybe he took their statements a little bit personally. Certainly he felt misunderstood and uncared for. After all, he thought these were his friends. He hoped they would have more faith in him. Their inability to do so said little about who Job was and much about themselves.
Ultimately, I think Job understood this. Otherwise, when his friends made the offerings of livestock God commanded of them, Job would not have accepted their gesture. He would have continued to scorn them. He wouldn’t have been able to pray for them, as the text said he did. If Job had taken his friends’ comments personally, forgiveness would have taken a long time. If we can avoid taking things personally, much will be better in our lives, including our relationships.
Sometimes people really do offer wise insight, and we can learn from them. At other times, compassion invites us to be gentle with those who are tender, even if their feelings are not strictly our responsibility. Kindness can be a virtue.
Yet we do not need to be held hostage to the brutal or thoughtless remarks people make. We do not need to suffer because someone seems to hate us. Their problems do not have to be ours. If we stop taking things personally, we may find freedom, joy, and peace.
In faith and fondness,
- Ruiz, Don Miquel, The Four Agreements, San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen, 53.
- Ibid 54.
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