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The Fourth Agreement

Family pathology rolls from generation to generation like a fire in the woods taking down everything in its path until one person, in one generation, has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to his ancestors and spares the children that follow. Therapist, writer, Terrence Real

Yesterday we closed this year’s “grand camp.” It’s a time when John and I get with our five grandchildren for a few days at the family cabin. The grandkids are now at the age that the older ones do all the planning. Menus are lined up, groceries bought, jobs assigned. The grandkids do the cooking and cleaning. Activities are discussed.

Different desires for food, unique personalities, a wide span of ages (from 7 to 15) and an assortment of interests make grand camp…rich. There are those who like to waterski, wake board, swim, tube, and run up and down the trails. Some who like art, some who like to shoot BB guns, some who like to chill and listen to music.

It can be exhilarating and exhausting. Full of fun and challenges.

Before we head out, we make a few agreements. I learned about this set up for success from our neighbor and school assistant principal, Jon Shelby. We list all the things that will make camp go better. Then there’s a group decision on what we can combine or modify to end with no more than four chosen agreements.

After much heated discussion we settled on these 4 agreements:

  • Use good manners

  • Show compassion

  • Do your share

  • Encourage people to talk out problems

Those agreements seemed like great choices. The good manners agreement covered a lot of ground including “bad words” and picking noses (eating the buggers) in public. Compassion involved considering the perspective of others and making a concerted effort to include others in activities and conversations. Doing your share meant, as one grandkid worded it later, “your job is not done until THE job is done.” Jobs are a team effort.

The fourth agreement discussion went something like this, “don’t go off mad or sad yourself; try to help others when they are mad or sad; encourage them to talk it out.”

I took a little book along (which they did seem to learn from and enjoy) for reading together, “How to Tame the Tumbles: The Mindful Self-Compassionate Way.” Certainly, that should cover it. All should be well. Thumbs up.

Little did I know. Really, I should have been more prepared and read the self-compassion book several times. Practiced in earnest. Because wherever humans hang out, there are going to be some big tumbles and big emotions.

Still all seemed on the surface to be going well until it wasn’t. And when it became obvious that kids needed to talk out their problems, it was after 9:30. Way beyond my brain shut down time.

Perfect time, however, for kids, especially for teens and pre-teens. They had stuff to say. Tears were shed. Some of them were mine. At one point I remember thinking that this felt like the sixties encounter groups which my mother experienced and told me about. I was way over my head.

The only thing I could do was to acknowledge that this being a human thing is hard and I didn’t know exactly what to do about all the suffering except to take a breath, acknowledge the challenge, try to understand how this being a human thing works.

We humans are imperfect and sometimes make mistakes. We feel hurt ourselves and sometimes inflict hurt on others. We can be unkind to others and to ourselves.

We, both young and old, have had traumas with a big "T" and many traumas with little a little "t." Many traumatic experiences occur in our families. Some have happened in the past (even to our parents) and were stirred up at grand camp. Others seemed to ignite during grand camp. Times of feeling left out, feeling unsafe, feeling that we were treated unfairly, feeling unloved or loved less than others. All hurt hurts.

There I was, the grandmother, in the middle of this little family encounter without incisive wisdom, without magic, and lacking the skill I wished for. Not the grandmother who walked on water.

All I could offer, after admitting that being a human was hard for me too, was to tell them about something I do most nights. I do a silent sending of best wishes to all my family individually (this idea was talked about in the taming the tumbles self-compassion book too).

My best wishes go something like this:

May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you use your suffering to become stronger, more resilient, wiser, and kinder to yourself and others. And may you always know you are loved.

And I send best wishes to myself and to John too.

Somehow, after sharing this, even with my grandkids, I felt that I had disclosed an intimate secret. My voice was shaky voice and tears filled my eyes. A group hug followed. Comforting.

Still I didn’t sleep well that night. I was worried that grand camp might not be remembered as “the best part of summer.”

And the next morning, one of the grand kids confided that she had a hard time sleeping too. We talked more. Cried more. Hugged more.

The rest of the crew woke up happy and ready to roll. I’m not sure how this grand camp will go down in history, but I’ve become a believer in the 4th agreement. Encourage people to talk out problems.

When I saw the quote (above) by Terrence Real, it spoke to me though I think about it slightly differently…

Human traumas roll from generation to generation like a fire in the woods taking down everything in its path until one person, in one generation, has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to his ancestors and spares the children that follow.

I hoped that we had faced the flames, the tough stuff of being a human, together…maybe now brought a bit of peace to our ancestors and prepared the following generations of children to walk the human journey together…talking out their problems, sharing some tears, spreading best wishes, and possibly a few hugs.

And I’m going to add a line to my nightly best wishes: may you [may I] appreciate the beauty and accept the reality of being an imperfect human like every other human who has ever lived.

Let me end by encouraging you to read the new book, by Dr. Peter Attia – Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity. It’s a huge book, but the last chapter is the clencher. “Work in Progress – the High Price of Ignoring Emotional Health.”

It opens with another Terrence Real quote (Real does therapy primarily with men - he worked with Dr Attia, but this applies to all of us):

Every man is a bridge, spanning the legacy he inherited and the legacy he passes on.

We all have our unique journey and inherited legacy, but we share our common humanity. How might we turn to each other and gently talk out our problems; disclose our pain, and warmly hold ourselves and each other.


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