I used to be big on keeping my promises and I never failed to tell everyone about my precious integrity.
First, I realized that it was really just a pose.
Then I realized that I was being played.
Now I know what to do about these promises.
I used to be the Good Person. The Keeper Of Promises. The Martyr That Keeps Promises Even When Others Fail.
But it felt wrong. It was just posing. I was really that promise-keeping person, but I was also collecting imaginary credits for it. So how could it be an honest game?
And what was I giving up in return?
Yes, there was an ulterior game I played – even if I actually kept my promises. The cost I paid was that people who didn’t deserve it relied on me and I carried their weight. The payoff was the imaginary approval I thought I was getting.
But who taught me that game? Whom was I copying?
I didn’t have to look far. It was a life game I inherited from my father. Being the Honest Promise-Keeper kept my father miserable and poor, the object of everyone’s ridicule and disdain for being such a gullible idiot. People don’t respect sacrifices. They claim so but they really don’t. Instead they suck up to strength, appease things that threaten them and cajole to wealth. Trying to impress them by integrity is futile.
My father was easy to play. He always said what he thought, didn’t even lie by omission. And he always followed through with contracts, even the ones that were clearly designed to rip him off. He stood by his words and promises with his head held high.
By age 40 he had a long catalog of imaginary credits that he awarded himself for keeping his promises. And an even longer catalog of debt that he had amassed by fulfilling his side of dishonest contracts. He was indebted for things like paying back other people’s mortgages as the guarantor. Because he assumed that if he kept his word, so will they.
And the real tragedy for him wasn’t the debt, but that they didn’t even love him for it. And my father’s imaginary credits were supposed to come from the very people who played him.
My stubborn insistence on keeping my promises and being the Blameless Keeper Of Promises obviously came from him.
But whom was it serving?
Every time you find yourself practicing an unthinking thought pattern, you better ask yourself where it came from. It is not always easy to see because it falls on your blind spot, but then you can still look for the beneficiary. And don’t listen to your own words. Cut out the words and just follow the money.
When I was little I used to jump up and down on the sofa chanting that I was going to make my mother rich, rich, rich. Why was I doing that? What concept of richness did I have at the age of four? None, of course. But I had an urge to please the people I depended on: my parents. And promising to make her rich was the only thing that pleased my mother and made her smile.
I remember that smile. In fact I don’t remember any other smiles of her. Just this clouded, sad one that used to tell me without words that “if I weren’t so sad I would be so proud of you” and that “not even you can do that, can you?”
Which, of course, made me promise it even harder. It took me a while to realize that a 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have come up with this, and that I got that idea from her. She made me promise. And looking back I didn’t think it was fair.
Which leads us to promises that are made too early to understand them – but not too early to take them seriously. The real topic of this post.
Everyone wants everyone to promise things prematurely
Early promises are not rare at all. In fact, it seems to be the modus operandi of human society. We try to make people maneuver themselves into a position from which they can’t escape – before they even understand what it means.
We do that to detach choice from responsibility.
We all understand the spinelessness of demanding a choice but shrugging off the consequences. It is less obvious when they deny you the choice – but saddle you with the responsibility. When they make you believe that something is not a choice at all. Like when they make you choose a partner – but not whether you want one in the first place.
Or when they make you think that having a child is not an option – you can only decide when and with whom. But you are saddled with the responsibility nonetheless.
I have always found christenings somehow off for this reason. Making a baby promise something is not only dumb because it’s a baby. Of course, the a ceremony is for the benefit of the adults. But the church also makes sure to collect the same promise from the child later in life. In their early teens when they are still too young and clueless – yet they they themselves seriously. They feel their promise is sound and that they understand it. They don’t.
Every religion and tribe does some kind of initiation this way, preferably before hormones kick in and dilute a child’s default, unquestioned loyalty. And these kind of promises are best made with a huge public ceremony to make it feel more binding. Like weddings.
We regard prescribed, standard promises more relevant than promises we make on our own volition.
But it is the wrong way around. Prescribed promises should have lower priority than the ones we make ourselves.
I cannot take anyone seriously who promises whatever the law tells them to be promised in marriage. They sign a one-size-fit-all contract, without reading it. And even worse, they do this impersonal thing with the person they should have the most intimate, personal connection with. Neither of them reads the contract. They couldn’t possibly sit down and come up with such a list of conditions and agreements themselves. Yet, when it is tossed before them, they sign away. And they treat it as the most personal, intimate thing they had ever done. What does it tell you about the people and our attitude to marriage? How many more self-lies can you pile on?
Why are our most important, most personal decisions made for us? Why do they deny that we even have a choice? And why do they make us promise all this without reading the terms? If the state is the arbiter of marriage, family and divorce, if they give the rules of how we should live together, they should bloody well make sure we understand it when we sign. If their intentions were what they say they were.
And yet there there are no classes teaching it to children. There is no one reading it to the couples before signing. We only ever read what we signed when we want a divorce. Or pay for divorce lawyers to tell us what we signed. Can you see yourselves, people? They leave us in the dark about what we actually promised. Until they serve us the bill. Am I the only one who asks who the beneficiary of this glaring neglect was?
And it is the same with every early promise. It is as if the world was dead-set on saddling us with promises before we understood what we sign up for.
If we are so close to our partners (and don’t just play roles to each other and the world) why don’t we write our own promises? Our most intimate relationship should be the very one in which we set the most personal rules and conditions. And I don’t just mean some nice-sounding, flowery cliches supplied by wedding organizers – but actual, meaningful, personalized promises. In fact, we shouldn’t need rules and conditions because we should be able to negotiate them as we go.
And why do we need an audience? For enforcement, of course, because we don’t really want to keep them later.
In relatively normal societies there is at least a theoretical age limit under which you cannot sign a contract. Curiously though, marriage is often permitted under that age limit.
But it’s not just marriage. Societies generally love to make you solemnly promise things – well before you even understand what was going on and who owes whom. And it results in pain. When you learn about the world and see what you promised, when people or your circumstances change – or when you change.
Premature promises are meant to stop you from changing.
And changing is what constitutes living, so when they stifle change, they really just try to reduce you to a piece of unchanging furniture in their own lives. Just as they are in everyone else’s – but that is no excuse.
As an adult I’m aware that if I make a child hysterically promise to make me rich – I am playing that kid. So am I supposed to keep those promises now, when I understand that it was unfair and malevolent to make me promise in the first place? Am I an ungrateful child for walking back on those promises – or am I like my father who proudly kept paying other people’s debt when I keep them?
What happens to promises I made before I realized I was being played?
Do the usual caveats of contracts apply? Did circumstances change when I grew up and understood? Is a childhood promise like signing a contract under false pretenses? Where is the fine line between a fair and an unfair promise?
Someone hammered promise-keeping as a rule of thumb into us. But it is not a moral thing in itself. If they make me promise to kill someone, is it moral to fulfill the promise? Of course not. If they made me promise to serve them with my life, is it moral to fulfill that promise? Or is it wrong because it was wrong to ask a child in the first place?
Promise-keeping is like always telling the truth – not a value in itself. One can tell the truth and cause a genocide. Where’s the virtue in that? Making people always tell the truth is really just a tool to gain an information edge over them. You can see how that is designed to gain power.
The same applies to keeping promises. There is nothing inherently right about keeping just any promise. It must be informed and not base don omissions. Promises made under false pretenses, promises that were forced out of us, promises that have seen circumstances changed or lost their point – these are just wrong. It is like promising to walk on a bridge – and attempting to do so even after the bridge had collapsed into the river. And sometimes the bridge wasn’t even there to begin with.
Some promises are just not valid anymore.
I still keep my promises but in a different way. I am very reluctant to give default promises and I negotiate hard. And people dislike me for it, of course, because they are used to big promises and non-delivery. They bask in the warmth of the promises they exert from others. Like together-forever. Or all-that’s-mine-is-yours. But when it comes to the reality of it, they walk away. They promise their entire life away many times throughout their lives. And hope they won’t be called out on it.
They are wrong to hate someone who negotiates. Negotiation is the sign of respect – and big, empty promises are the opposite. Exert a big promise out of someone who is reluctant or ignorant and see your house of cards crumble. You deserve it.
Because I ask questions and negotiate, I am not regarded as someone keeping promises – even though I still do that once I agree to the terms. Instead it earned me a reputation of a mean negotiator – possibly a mean person. In a country where invoices go unpaid for an average of 100 days I do pay them immediately – and yet people hate me for being tough on the price. I guess what they are asking for is non-paying customers – and that’s what they deserve. Because at the end of the day that is what they do to others. Promise big, make others promise big – make them sign that marriage contract, make them agree to that baby – then they all try to get out somehow.
But again, all these ramblings don’t answer the original question:
What to do when you already promised something before you understood?
You are probably in those shoes. You were made to promise your whole life to your family, your tribe, your religion. You are in a relationship with someone who was available but you didn’t think it through, and you are in a frenzy to get the marriage because you can hear disapproval buzzing in your ears. The disapproval may be imaginary, it doesn’t matter to your ears. And you are too weak and cowardly to withstand pressure alone.
Or you you made childhood promises and they feel like… well, they feel like they are you. Saying no threatens your very identity and you haven’t built one of your own yet.
Or you got pregnant before you could even comprehend what it meant to be a child’s parent, but you were so deeply submerged in the holy-motherhood myth that you didn’t realize that the choice was denied from you.
Or maybe you’re the daddy who wanted to prove that he is a person (i.e. man) and genuinely wanted to make a woman big… And now you are left with the lifelong consequences and only just starting to realize what an idiot you were. You are stuck not just with the child, but with the other parent for life.
So you did it, and the pressure is off. The clouds are clearing and you are finally taking inventory of what you made of your life during that frenzy. You are left with the rest of your life staring in your face and it’s not pretty because it is built on fulfilling demands – and not your own, informed choice. You didn’t even know there was a choice. And you want that choice back. You want to do over now.
What to do now? What is better? Staying, sulking bitterly and ruining lives – or walking back on promises and ruining lives?
Well, the key to (your very own) answer should be this:
The key to the solution is not finding the culprit. It is to find the solution.
More about that in the next post…