Somewhere between the days of running on the playground and walking into divorce court, the notion of a promise lost all of its appeal and most of its significance. When I was a kid, if you made me a promise not even an act from our Lord God would have gotten you off the hook. Yet as with most youthful impressions, age opened my eyes to the stark reality that promises usually come with fine print. There are some where everyone involved understands that a salt shaker may be necessary, “I promise to bring this top back next week” or “I promise to never drink again”. Then there are others which are expected to carry a bit more weight like a vow to “love, honor and cherish” or “I will never lie to you”.
For many, in the most intimate moments that two people can share, when vulnerability is open wide and souls are laid bare there remains a splinter of doubt irritating the recesses of the conscious asking “do you really believe in what they’re saying?” As if truth itself has an underlying motive and possessing faith in sincerity and virtue simply implies that we are bona-fide suckers who deserve to be taken advantage of.
What happened since those days of innocence? How did we become so suspicious and unbelieving? Admittedly, most of us have cast out our heart only to reel it back in shattered, used, and bloody; and we’ve been misled by having our faith in someone else turned against us. Yet while we all may have justifiable reasons, I believe that our cynicism is more our own doing than anyone else’s. What am I talking about, you ask?
We all struggle to keep the very promises we make to ourselves.
How many times have you sincerely made a promise to yourself such as “I will never do that again”, “I will always tell the truth no matter what”, or “I promise to never to become like that” only to find yourself facing the dark reality that you haven’t lived up to your own standards and you are the only one to blame? And matters are made worse because, for most of us, this wasn’t the first time its happened. How could anyone not be a bit pessimistic of someone else’s promises when we can’t even keep our own?
When pressured, most would cautiously admit to living by a certain set of core values promises. Ground rules, if you will, that we put in place with the aim of keeping us from veering off in the wrong direction. Though I’d like to say that I live by my principles without fail, I’d be lying if I did. A recent event has brought this notion of broken promises to the front and center of my own life. While the incident itself is irrelevant and by most accounts inconsequential it stands as another example that even the most long held of vows can be broken just as easily as a New Year’s resolution.
I’ve discovered that as I get closer to breaking a long held principle, it’s of little concern to me why I established it in the first place. The memories of those past experiences which drove me to draw that line in the sand are suddenly forgotten. And I’ve realized that its when my emotions are introduced into the equation any rationale I may have had gets kicked out the door. While the idea of being led by our feelings might make for best selling romance novels, in the real world they are poor decision makers. Would anyone define theirs or someone else’s infidelity, drug use, or unprotected sex as a judicious and practical choice?
I’ve heard it said that a promise to ourselves is like a guardrail on the highway. Those barriers are put up to keep us from heading off into something much more dangerous. How often have you seen an automobile accident where the guardrail didn’t contain the carnage and the aftermath was worse? Isn’t that similar to the way many personal commitments are established? We make a choice and that decision goes sideways on us with the resulting pain being intense enough to make force us to make a conscious life change? And we then wisely institute that personal standard so we can avoid enduring similar suffering in the future (The guardrail is put up so that no one else will go over the cliff). Maybe that’s the reason why we are so much harder on ourselves than anyone else could be after the shrapnel starts flying because we compromised our values (jump that guardrail that WE put there). We suddenly recall why its there and we’re kicking ourselves because we did it anyway.
While there are no easy answers to this self defeating cycle the human animal appears destined to remain in; I have learned, through my own experiences, that we can make it far more difficult to lie to ourselves.Similar to ‘wakeup ridges’ (those grooves on the shoulder of highways), we can establish wakeup signs to help us realize when we are heading for a guardrail; so instead of hurdling into and over it we turn the steering wheel back onto the road. We it coming before it gets there and we do something about it.
In future posts, I’ll expand on five areas that I think we can all focus to make sure promises to ourselves remain unbroken.