“Promises are, absolutely considered, an evil, and stand in opposition to the genuine and wholesome exercise of an intellectual nature.” – William Goodwin
I have a problem with promises. Keeping a promise or “sticking to your word” is usually seen as a noble act, but I believe there are many times in life when it’s much better to break (or at least renegotiate) a promise.
Say your best friend of a dozen years comes to you one night and asks that you tell anyone who inquires that you’d spent the previous two hours together at your house, watching a movie. It’s a strange request, but he’s your best friend and you trust him, so you agree. Only later do you find out that your BFF had committed a nasty crime and is using you as an alibi to get away with it.
What then? Do you keep your promise?
Of course, that’s an extreme example, but it highlights my primary issue with promises: We live in an uncertain, ever-changing world. No sooner have you made a promise, than you can have it quickly compromised by new information coming to light.
In such cases, I don’t believe we should feel any obligation to stay true to our word.
This isn’t to say you should never promise anything to anyone (apologies, Mr. Goodwin). I still make promises and do my best to keep my word. But when it turns out that keeping a promise means I have to compromise my core values, or if keeping it means I have to stubbornly ignore new information, then I allow myself to reconsider.
Committing to No Commitments
Colin Wright recently wrote about his philosophy regarding commitments. An excerpt:
Think back to who you were and what you were doing with your life two years ago. Are you the same person with the same needs? Were the technologies at the time the same as they are now? Were the variables in your life that guided your decisions the same as they are now?
The decision that I made a few years ago was not to eliminate commitment completely, but to put a ceiling on how long my commitments would last: six months.
This, to me, is smart. Perhaps not for everyone, but, as Colin notes, it works well for him because he values freedom over convenience. He’d rather have the option of moving apartment after two months than being locked into a long-term lease.
I believe this is a good approach for anyone committed to a life of growth and learning. People often ask me what I’ll do when I finish my trip around the world without flying. I tell them I don’t know, because I don’t know who I’ll be in four years, just like four years ago I had no idea I’d be in living in Kathmandu right now. (Actually, screw four years ago; Even four months ago I had no idea!)
I’ve made myself a promise to complete this trip, but with the caveat that if I get to a point where it no longer makes sense, a point where, after much deliberation, the journey no longer resonates with me, then I’ll break my promise and go do something else.
Not a cop out
To be clear, this isn’t some kind of mind trick I use to avoid responsibility, or to feel good about quitting when the going gets tough.
If I tell you that I’m going to meet you tomorrow outside the Family Momo Center at 2 p.m., I’ll do my best to be there. If you hire me to design a website for you, I’ll do my best to deliver it as agreed, even if I’ve got several other projects on the go.
And if I’m committed to getting this article finished and scheduled for publication today, then I’m going to suck it up and get it done, even if it means running to the coffee shop restroom every hour to throw up (true story; food poisoning strikes again).
Scared of commitment?
But with such a willingness to go back on my promises, folks often assume that I’m simply scared of commitment. To me, that’s like assuming someone’s homophobic because they’d rather not have sex with men.
It’s not about fear; it’s about preference. I prefer not to take on long-term commitments or make promises in the face of uncertainty because there’s a good chance I’ll think differently down the line. To me, promising to keep your word far into the future is a bad gamble. We’re all terrible at predicting the future.
It comes down to this: long-term promises in an uncertain world are dangerous. “I’ll always love you” is uber-romantic and some folks even manage to stay true to that, but for most people I believe it’s unrealistic and only leads to feelings of guilt and regret when our minds change.
The best promise you can make…
…is a promise to yourself. It goes like this:
I promise that I’ll allow myself to break promises that no longer serve me or others. And, more importantly, I won’t feel bad for doing so.
Got a promise you know you should break? What’s stopping you?