When my divorce was finalized four years ago, my mother did what every mother does—she tried to help. She hadn’t been able to do so during my 17-year marriage, and to be honest, nobody had known there was anything to help with. I’m sure, by the end, my mother had figured out there was trouble, or at least that there would be trouble, but while we were married, she respected my relationship and kept her distance.
But now, at 44 years old, for the first time in my adult life, I was on my own. I had spent hours with my mother on the phone during the painful episode that was my divorce. And she was amazing. She listened. I told her that I hadn’t been happy in quite some time and that I wanted my 3-year-old daughter to have a happy father. I wanted to live a happy life. My mother didn’t judge me as she passed along the wisdom she had gained from her two divorces. Her biggest piece of advice for me was to not dive right into another relationship.
“Take a year to be on your own and get to know this new, happy Curtis,” she told me. I responded to this like every son responds to advice from his mother. I ignored it and dove immediately into a relationship. And not just any relationship: a bi-coastal, long distance relationship with a 27-year-old girl.
The other thing my mother did was send me a gift—a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. This “self-help” book contained four life lessons and, according to the book, if the reader followed them, he or she would become a happier person and lead a happier life. The agreements—which one makes to oneself— are:
- Be Impeccable with Your Word
- Always Do Your Best
- Don’t Make Assumptions
- Don’t Take Anything Personally
They are pretty straightforward and incredibly powerful in their simplicity. And they make sense. The only problem was when I received this book…this gift from my mother, I was not yet ready to be happy. I wasn’t ready to be fixed. I leafed through the pages of the small book and set it aside.
Five years later, I am sitting at the large butcher’s block in my kitchen in New Orleans eating pancakes with my now 7-year-old daughter. I have Sports Center on and we are watching all of the pre-game programming that leads up to Sunday football kickoff. A piece on deflate-gate poster boy Tom Brady comes on, and Charlotte and I both put down our forks and listen.
Apparently, one of the things that make Tom Brady one of the greatest, calmest, coolest quarterbacks to ever play the game is his steadfast following of The Four Agreements. And one of the things that make my 7-year-old girl so unavoidably wonderful is her steadfast dedication to curiosity. “What are the Four Agreements, Daddy?” This launched us into an hour and a half analysis of these four fundamentals of happiness. And as we broke them down and revealed how each affected our two very different lives, I realized that we were having one of those “I’ll talk about this conversation in my speech at her wedding reception” kind of talks.
Keeping your word, doing your best, not assuming things will always go your way, and not taking things personally—these are amazing lessons when applied to a 7-year-old and a 44-year-old. What young kid doesn’t grapple with white lies, following through to the end and—most dreaded—assuming there will be dessert at the end of dinner even though it wasn’t discussed. And what middle-aged, divorced man doesn’t take everything everyone says personally? So we talked, turning the tables on each other and revealed how we do, and do not, follow these agreements on a daily basis. 90 minutes later, we agreed that we would make these Four Agreements with ourselves and with each other.
The next day, I told several people about this incredible encounter with my daughter. I encouraged those with young children to read through these agreements with their little ones. Then, about a week later, it hit me. Perhaps there are actually five agreements?
I am by no means a “self help” consumer or teacher, but what if we agreed to teach our children now (while they are still children) the life lessons that we use to “fix” ourselves later in life? What if we could “fix” our children before life breaks them? What if we made a 5th agreement—an agreement with our children and ourselves—a promise to shoot straight when it’s easier to lie to our kids, to do our best when just ok might be good enough, to not assume they will figure this all out later on their own, and to not take it personally when they stray from their own agreements. It’s a promise I have made, and it might be the most important one I will ever keep.