“Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.” (Hannah Arendt)
“I can’t promise you,” replied my student as he splayed his fingers on the desk top and started tapping them nervously.
Anticipating an upcoming absence from school, I wanted to especially make sure that my one class was going to behave for my substitute. I was polling each student individually about a request for a commitment to good behavior.
“I just want you to promise me that you will listen to the sub and follow directions,” I urged.
“I can’t,” he repeated “I can’t make promises.”
Confused by his reaction, I questioned him further and learned that this student had already built up a wall and was determined by age 14 that he was unable to make commitments and that such a request made him feel uncomfortable. Although he was very pleasant and willing to discuss it further, it was clear that this guy was not moving off the mark.
“I never can keep them,” he divulged.
“So why bother making them?” he questioned.
Ah-ha! Now I understood his point. This young man was not being defiant. In fact, he was being quite insightful and honest.
How many times have we been requested to make a promise to commit ourselves to someone or something knowing that we possibly would not be able to carry it through? How many times have we agreed to something that we knew would never come true?
Giving our word to another and sticking by it takes courage and perseverance. It is a process that we learn early on and later it becomes a part of our moral fabric.
The first promise I remember making was the Brownie Promise and I took it very seriously.
“I promise to love God and my country, to help other people every day, especially those at home.”
As a little girl I dutifully memorized the sentence and the golden Brownie pin on my uniform was a visible reminder of my vow. It was my first official commitment experience.
Years later I pledged my love to my soul mate with my wedding vows spoken in a tiny white clapboard church in the same town where I had been a Brownie many years before.
“…I promise to love, honor and cherish you until death do us part…”
Those were the words that I said to my soon-to-be-husband on September 3, 1977. Little did I know that 15 years later I would have to carry through with my promise. When death broke our union apart, I had to say good-bye to him. Although that was our vow, I really did not want to keep it.
We take risks when we make promises. We put ourselves in vulnerable positions. But as the proverb says, “the sweetest fruit is the furthest out on the branch.”
Some people shy away from commitments. The unknown can be daunting. Like my student, some of us doubt whether we are able to fulfill the requirements. Perhaps there has been failure in the past and another opportunity is a reminder of that previous event and it is too intimidating. Self doubt ends up winning and the prospect of success never gets a chance.
And sometimes we just need to jump in and hope for the best. But we do need to keep in mind that commitment involves work, so we should never be reckless with our actions.
As the years go by in a personal relationship, we may have to rekindle the spark that started it all and acknowledge that we have grown and changed. Perhaps a rough patch comes along that tempts us to quit and throw it all away. So we have to dig deeper and revisit the initial feeling that brought us together. By peeling away life’s layers, we get to the core, the precious nugget from whence it all began. We work together to renew our relationship.
Finally when the end of a union does come, and one way or another they all do, I hope that you can look back at what you built together as a couple, and be grateful for the time that you were given to share your lives.
I finally got my teenaged student to make me a promise that he would try his best. It was a small concession for me, but a big step for him. Fortunately the substitute left a glowing report and I praised the class for keeping their word. I focused on him when I was telling the class how proud I was of their behavior and that I knew that I could count on them. Maybe a feeling of success stuck with him that day and would make the next opportunity for a promise a little less challenging.
Meanwhile, I myself entered into another marriage commitment 8 years ago knowing that once again, there were no guarantees. But life is to be lived and after all, love is why we are here. My heart was ready to share again.
I hope that you have been able to make and keep some promises and maybe you have been able to connect your life with another’s. We can feel the strength from one another as we all learn, grow, and live.
Don’t be afraid to make a promise. But be ready to put in the work to keep it. It is worth it!