“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
From our most intimate relationships to achieving order and predictability among nations, happiness and peace depends on keeping the agreements and promises we make to each other. With just a glance at the news, it is possible to see a strewn trash heap of broken promises leading to the chaos apparent in the world.
In an effort to eliminate the disharmony and turmoil in human affairs we often have to resort to two avenues — the secular way: laws that enforce and the religious way: rewards in heaven. But force and promises of rewards in the hereafter will only go so far. What if everyone just did the right action regardless of consequences that evoke fear or promises of gain?
What would life be like if each and every one of us just could be counted upon to be our word? Most agreements and promises are unspoken, just understood. If you loan someone a book, it is understood that it will be returned. If your friend borrows money, the expectation is that you will be paid back. If you invite someone to dinner, it is not necessary for you to elicit a verbal promise from her that she will show up. Her acceptance of the invitation is a promise. If we go to the race track and bet on the horses, we expect the race to be fair. But just today The New York Times reported that an investigation of illegal drugs given to race horses could lead to the recovery of $2.5 million in prize money won unfairly.
When we leave our sons and daughters in the care of a clergyman, he has not, as part of his vows, made a verbal promise not to abuse; but the promise is understood anyway. Just yesterday two more Roman Catholic priests from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were found unsuitable for ministry after sexually abusing children.
This nation promised its citizenry “equality for all,” but only yesterday, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a weak statement to address the city’s abusive stop-and-frisk program, which ensnares hundreds of thousands of minority New Yorkers every year.
The world would be a very different place if we all lived up to our promises, kept our word and lived by our ethical beliefs.
“When a man takes an oath…he’s holding his own self in his own hands — like water. And if he opens his fingers, then he needn’t hope to find himself again.” — Robert Bolt
I was thinking about promises this morning while riding my bike down Huguenot Street. I remembered a pivotal teacher of mine saying, “A person’s worth is solely determined by his or her ability to be their word.” It was not even ten-thirty in the morning and my day was already full of promises to keep. I promised to clean the house. I promised to make a healthy breakfast for my family. I promised to get some exercise. I promised to pay for our summer vacation. The check was written this morning. I promised to sit each morning with my husband and talk before we each went our separate ways.
I am not motivated to keep my promises, behave ethically and be my word by the hope for a reward after I am dead. I don’t know about heaven. No one, including the great magician Harry Houdini, who made elaborate plans to send messages to his wife from heaven, has ever been heard from again after they have left this world. If not for reward for doing right, or the fear of punishment for doing wrong, what could motivate us to keep our promises?
Keeping promises, being your word, is a gift you give to yourself and others. When you give away money, you have less money. If you share your food, your space, your clothing and all your possessions, you have less of those material commodities. But if you are your word, you get back intangible and invaluable gifts. You will be trusted and loved. There will be order and predictability in your dealings with other people. You will enjoy a good reputation. You will be someone who can be counted upon and that’s worth whatever sacrifices you will need to make in order to be your word.