When Commitments Don’t Matter

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You saw the person’s lips moving and you heard the words, “I’ll get that to you by Thursday noon.” The trouble is you knew the promise was bogus. Maybe you felt like you couldn’t speak up or that you shouldn’t speak up, but one thing was for certain, you didn’t speak up. Even worse, sometimes it is you who is making the bogus promise.

The eternal question

What has us as human beings both make and accept promises we know we are not reliable to keep? Isn’t this practice, at best, self-delusion?

Whether we ascribe it to one’s best-of-intentions, politeness, or naïveté about what it really will take to deliver, simply put we as a people are no good at doing what we said we would do. It’s not that we’re insincere about our commitments; assuredly, people really do want to do as they say. The trouble is our commitments tend to be only as good as the surrounding circumstances. If and when things change, more often than not so do our commitments.

Take a look at the people and their marriage vows. At the altar we say things like, “until death do us part,” but in practice many people forget the oath once he gets fat and lazy, she nags one too many times, or things get tough, uncomfortable, routine, or simply boring. Covenant commitment becomes convenience commitment — I’ll do what I say until I won’t.

How to intervene in the status quo?

What makes the difference in interrupting this sad state of affairs?

Some suggest that the only solution is to make promises you are certain you can keep. This is foolish thinking as life cruelly teaches us that there is very little that we can control. How many of us have received news from a doctor that very clearly shows we are not in control? Control is an illusion. The only promise one can make that they are able to really keep is to wake up in the morning; if you don’t keep that one, you probably will not have to worry about keeping any others.

The difference lies in the operational context shaping one’s life: are you committed to honoring your words or honoring circumstances? Given most of us have a reason when a promise isn’t delivered, e.g., traffic, Steve from accounting didn’t provide the data, the dog ate your homework, etc., it is obvious that people put the power in the circumstance, not in their word.

What would it be like?

Just imagine a world where what mattered was one’s word. More importantly, imagine who you could be in that world.

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