On Promises

There are promises from the heart, and promises from some other place which, for the sake of differentiating here, I’ll call the “mind”.

One might quickly assert, having accepted this differentiation for the sake of discussion, that promises from the heart are to be more trusted and desired. This, especially, since we don’t yet know where the other promises come from.

I will argue the opposite.

It’s an easy rebuttal to note that the most solemn of public promises are those contained in the traditional marriage ceremonies, and yet in the USA around 50% of new marriages will eventually end in divorce. I have promised, three times now, “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.”

To promise to love. Can one really make this promise? Is the heart the most constant of guides in our lives? Will the loved one, or oneself, be eternally lovable?

We don’t promise to love our children, yet we will love them through times more trying than we would endure in a marriage. How often have you heard phrases like “we stayed, or are staying, together for the sake of the children”?

Take another solemn, public promise: that made by all members of Congress and employees of the federal government upon taking office:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

For the year 2010, the Gallup Poll found that only 19 percent of respondents thought they could “trust government in Washington to do what is right… just about always, or most of the time”. Of course there may be no correlation between an individual’s oath of office and the public’s general perception of government performance. But then, why not? I think it fair to say that this public oath has no value except where the oath-taker might be charged with gross dereliction of duty, or of treason.

Using these two examples, I assert that public promises are suspect in value.

What about private promises?

The most important glue between humans is that of trust. Will we show up on time? Will we return that book when promised? Will we complete our assignment? Will we keep a confidence?

If questions like these can be answered in the positive, then we are bound ever closer together. If not, we drift apart.

Do these promises come from the heart? Or do they come from a deeper place, one that involves us as members of a clan, or tribe, or species—the collective “mind”?

Promises build expectations. Disappointments build distrust and bitterness.

Be careful what you promise.

Likewise, be careful of what you expect from others.