What makes humans different from all other animals? We make promises. And more than that—we also break, believe, assume, and re-negotiate promises. Promises are what makes the world go round. Vows, contracts, agreements, pledges are what create the civil or uncivil society we live in. And yet how many of us are aware of the promises we live with? I am amazed that it is a subject so rarely addressed. In my research, I have yet to find a definitive work on this all-pervading but slippery subject.
Because I am so aware of how much this subject dominates our daily lives, I made a deal with myself—to delve into this matter, to lift up and make clear how important the whole subject of promises relates to how we conduct ourselves, how it determines the survival of our communities and even our world. I now make a promise to you, my readers: I will vow to make us more aware of how promises are made, assumed and fulfilled or forgotten.
I will ask us think again before making promises, or changing them, or being on the receiving end of a promise.
I will offer reassurance that every one of us breaks promises in our lives, often for good reason, and sometimes the breaking of a vow, contract, agreement, and yes, a promise, is the most virtuous thing we can do.
Perhaps there is a reason why the subject of promise per se rarely is treated. My hunch is there is a dark cloud hanging over the sub
ject, a shadow side we may not even be aware of. We are often promised much, receive little. The word, like the word “love,” is bantered about, skimmed over with sappy sentiment, lacking sincerity or reality. “Contracts are made to be broken” is a cliché from the legal profession, implying “don’t worry, we can always find a loophole.”
Every child born in our democracy comes with a promise attached. No loopholes. Each and every child has a birthright to be given every opportunity to grow up and be healthy, safe, educated and fulfilled as a human being. This is the agreement that the baby’s first caretakers need to make with that child, implicitly or explicitly. And most, thank goodness, will follow through. Yet the best parents make promises to their children they often cannot fulfill. Why? Because of over-optimism, careless talk, or unforeseen circumstances. How often we hear of children who are promised a pony for Christmas, end up with a wrapped gift of pajamas.
And who hasn’t had a boss who promised you a raise or a promotion and never came through, lovers who stood you up, pastors that promised salvation and turned out to have feet of clay or worse, liars or power-hungry predators? Politicians who promised the end of the axis of evil and making the world safe for democracy? Need we say more? And then there is the guilt of us promise-makers that can be carried for a lifetime.
The debt we never paid, the letters to our mother we never wrote, and the time we left our children alone and they got into trouble. Serious stuff that hangs in our psyches, usually beyond healing or completion, gnawing at our souls.
That harmless sounding word is not so harmless is it. The path to promises made, kept or broken is paved with our best intentions that may point toward heaven but stumble over pitfalls and potholes along the way. They may not be signed, sealed or delivered, but they are binding in their own way. Each promise made or broken has a reason, there is no such thing as a “simple promise.” So let’s look at the varieties of agreements we make, sometimes spoken, sometimes written, as a dictionary would define them.
Promise—from the Latin meaning “to send forth,” it is a declaration assuring that one will or will not do something, a vow. To afford a basis for expecting.
Vow—an earnest promise or pledge that binds one to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner, a solemn promise to live and act in accordance with prescriptions of a religious body.
Pledge—a formal promise to do something as a performance of an obligation or duty, or to refrain from doing something. To offer or guarantee by solemn promise. For example, “To take the pledge” means a solemn vow to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages.
Contract—an agreement between two or more parties, one that is written and enforceable by law. A formal often legal agreement.
Covenant—a binding agreement made by two or more persons or parties, a compact. Often in a religious context. A formal, sealed agreement or contract.
Swear—to make a solemn promise, a vow, to make a promise or pledge with a solemn oath.
So here are the usual definitions of the ways we humans make agreements, they all help to make this a more civilized and ordered world, these words encourage trust and hope and security, instead of chaos and ambiguity and anarchy. There are no words in any language more loaded with hope and trust on the one hand, anger and despair on the other hand.
Most people in my life have kept their promises to me, and I to them. At least the ones that really mattered and could be kept—which is probably why I am such a trusting and optimistic person today. I am willing to show my faithfulness toward other people in my life, most of the time, that was shown to me. I am willing to say, or imply, “I promise you” and hope that my energy, wisdom, grace and good luck will allow me to make good on it. If for some reason I do not, I also trust that the recipient of the promise will understand, and even forgive.
This brings us to a highly misunderstood word: Compromise. A word which if you take it apart means promise with—a mutual coming to terms. It often carries the negative aspects of a week-kneed giving in or a not standing up for one’s principles; but there are circumstances in our personal dealings and in the workings of governments that require each side to give in a little in order to get on with it, to accomplish some required action. There are situations we see every day that requires this coming to terms by both sides agreeing to some gains and some losses in the service of a more harmonious goal. The ability to compromise wisely, while being clear and assertive, can make the difference between positive outcomes or staying stuck, between giving up or succeeding, even between peace and war, life and death.
This is what happens in mediation, when the parties come together with the promise of reaching agreements: first, they must set aside time to listen, learn from the other, think carefully, let go of their original expectations perhaps. The best forms of mediation, where the parties involved can come to “yes,” also require sympathy for the other persons, and working together with a sense of good intentions. The results can be a broader outlook on our lives, the end of hostility, the beginning of good will, and yes, compromise, in the word’s best sense.
There is much to ponder on the subject of promises. This ideal relates to our integrity, our present circumstances, and our expectations. To make any vow is a serious decision, risky even. We have to be very very careful in choosing what and to whom we make promises. All the facets of that word can have legal, religious, personal or planetary consequences. Perhaps this all begins with the most difficult promises of all—those we make, or could make to ourselves. I am in the midst of writing a book on this subject in which I promise to dive deeper into the subject with the hope we will come up with more practical and humane ways to know how and when to make or break or take a promise. And when is a promise really a promise?
Please let me know if you have any ideas or stories or questions about this subject—I promise to get back to you.
Meanwhile, Happy Springtime,