Tuesday, June 16, 2009



We hear about “commitments” all the time. When we hear that a person has “commitments,” we tend to admire him. In the abstract, we link commitments with positive ideas, such as “a commitment to justice” or “a commitment to goodness.” But we make and break commitments all the time. They do not typically involve lofty ideals or premises. Rather, they concern the forgettable grist of life: Commerce, fleeting relationships, petty plans, timing, instrumental networking—stuff that ultimately no one remembers. Generally, there is nothing intrinsically special about commitments. Rather, they force human beings into a losing game, because commitments try to buck natural changes in life. Just live a few years to learn nothing stays the same for long in this world. That’s why it’s unrealistic—and usually unreasonable—to commit to anything. And in most cases there is nothing we can do about it.

So why do we admire commitments in the abstract? Let us start with the word. “To commit” has many meanings in English. For our purposes, the word’s most relevant meaning involves “pledging, obligation and assurance” to undertake future action or believe future thoughts. Dictionary.com specifies: “4. To bind or obligate, as by pledge or assurance.” A commitment, then, is a statement or promise to do or believe something long in advance. It obligates the speaker to do what he says, even if future events turn out in a completely unexpected way. It forces him into a dilemma between “his word” and the pressures of unforeseen reality. By making a “commitment,” the speaker takes a huge gamble that life will not twist away from him in the time it takes to keep his promise. If he loses the gamble and reneges on his commitment, others label him “dishonorable” and “unreliable.” If he wins the gamble and fulfills his word before circumstances turn on him, others label him “honorable,” “steadfast” and “resolute.” In both events, commitments are risky. If a commitment is long-term, there is a greater chance that intervening reality will undermine the circumstances necessary to fulfill it. But if it is short-term, life has a smaller window in which to unravel it.

Yet our society encourages us to make commitments all the time. In so doing, it leads us into dangerous territory. It insists that we “honor our word” to do things. But if life gets away from us and makes it impossible—or at least extremely difficult—to honor our word, we suffer excoriation for failure. The law adds more thematic baggage to the unofficial “dishonor” stigma that accompanies failure to fulfill commitments. In “regular life,” we make “unofficial” commitments. The law, however, recognizes special “official” commitments called “contracts.” While “regular life” penalizes our failure to adhere to commitments with social stigma and derision for “dishonor,” the law penalizes us in a highly technical way. In so doing, it gives official approval to the prevailing social convention that “commitments are good,” and “word-breaking is bad.” If a commitment fits the legal requirements of “contract,” it is more than just a commitment. It becomes a “cause of action” for money damages when some unlucky soul does not fulfill his word. Fault and circumstance have nothing to do with it. If a person does not do what he promised, the law penalizes him, no matter what the situation may be.

Whether in life or in law, commitments are troublesome. They ask us to ignore and defy inevitable changes that pursue us. In my view, it is not only unrealistic to make certain commitments, but also unfair. This is not to say that it is not admirable to make long-term commitments. It is merely to say that life changes far too much—and men are far too weak—to realistically deliver on many promises. In this sense, life and law overlap. Consider long-term mortgage contracts. Generally speaking, mortgage customers commit—both legally and grammatically—to pay a bank a certain amount every month for 30 years or more. Consider what can happen in one year, let alone thirty. Someone could get sick. Someone could get run over by a train. Someone could suffer crippling depression and lose their job. The economy could tank, causing widespread unemployment. A disaster could strike, destroying the house. Someone could get laid off. Someone could take a pay cut. Someone could have a crisis of conscience and refuse to take a paycheck from a corrupt organization. Someone could lose a limb. Someone could commit a crime and go to prison. Someone could cheat on a spouse, leading to marital strife, divorce, acrimony and reduced income. Someone could lose their parents, causing emotional turmoil. Or someone could just lose interest in life and commit suicide.

All this could happen in one year. Think about what can happen in thirty. Life whips us with unrelenting pressure, from both inside our souls and from the outside world. Yet the bank could care less: You made a commitment. You must pony up the payment every month—like you said you would—no matter what dramatic, unforeseen circumstances you might face. It doesn’t matter that you did not foresee trouble 15 years down the road. You made a commitment. The fact that both popular judgment and the law favor the bank’s position in this situation strikes me as fundamentally unfair—and unrealistic in the extreme. Realistically speaking, we cannot adhere to commitments. Life changes too much. What was normal on the day we signed the contract may no longer be normal five years later. But commitments bind us to our word even when it would be painful or absurd to continue following it. All this ensues because we “pledged ourselves” to an action. When we make commitments, we entirely assume the risk that life will not turn against us in the time it takes to fulfill our word. That is not smart.

Commitments, then, are unrealistic because they ask us to defy inevitable, unforeseen change in life. That is unreasonable because a reasonable person does not take action that is sure to fail. Reasonable people use their sense, experience and memory to judge future actions. If sense, experience and memory reveal that a certain action will likely not yield success, a reasonable person will refrain from engaging in it. Sense, experience and memory quickly reveal to us that life is unpredictable and volatile. What appears tranquil one day may be disrupted and toxic the next. Only a naïve person could ignore that. Why, then, do we continue to make doomed commitments every day? Simple: Because in many cases power plays a role in commitment.

We do not live in an equal society. In our commercial world, we need “things” that we do not have. In order to get what we don’t have, we must deal with people who do. That means we must enter into relationships with people who hold advantages over us, whether they are lenders, merchants, schools or retailers. These people want to make a profit on us, and it is easy to make a profit when you can define the rules of the relationship. If we want money from a bank because we can’t afford a home, they give it to us only if we commit ourselves to paying them back every month with twice as much interest. If we want money from a lender to go to school because we can’t afford tuition, they give it to us only if we commit ourselves to paying them back every month with three times as much interest. When we make our commitment, we do not really think about the future. What do we know what the future holds? We just need the money now, in 2009. We hope that we will have income to pay it back in 2014, 2024 and 2034. We don’t know what disaster might strike in 2013. We don’t know if we’ll lose our job in the financial crisis of 2021. We gamble that we will have the money every month to pay the bank because we made a commitment. Yet that commitment puts the risk on us that our lives will not inalterably change at some time before we fulfill our word. That is a huge risk. And it is an unreasonable one. We take it only because we must. In that sense, our commitments may be unrealistic and unreasonable, but we have little choice in the matter. Either we make an unfair, unrealistic or unreasonable commitment, or we do not get our tuition money. We gamble that we will have a better shot at life with an education, so we take the bet. In this sense, we make commitments in many cases because the relationship is skewed: The powerful party sets the terms, and we must follow.

Not all commitments reflect unequal commercial relationships. Emotional commitments, for instance, do not strictly involve money. Nonetheless, emotional commitments are just as unrealistic and unreasonable as financial commitments. Commitments are commitments, no matter the subject matter. They ask us to defy inevitable, unforeseen changes in life. In emotional commitments, changes can strike from the outside. But more often they originate in human weakness and inconstancy. Human beings’ tastes and desires vacillate as violently as the weather. When two people commit to each other emotionally, they play a dangerous game. They gamble that one or the other will not develop affections for anyone else at any time. They gamble that one or the other will not suffer injury or lose interest in the relationship at any time. They gamble that external pressures will not cause emotional rifts between them.

As was true in financial commitments, these are losing bets. Human beings are weak. They lust for others, no matter what commitments they have made to their mates. Their circumstances change over time, altering the way they look at their partners. The same goes for the other partner. Human beings do what makes them feel happy, not what enables them to fulfill their word. Naturally, this makes emotional commitments extremely difficult to maintain. After all, if the only thing maintaining an emotional relationship is the abstract desire to “keep one’s word” at the expense of happiness, it does not take a psychiatrist to understand that the bond will soon break. The quest for happiness is individual, not joint. It changes with time and circumstances. That leaves a lot of room for mischief in a “committed relationship.” In short, a lot can go wrong over time between two individual people who each want to be happy in their own way. That is why emotional commitments are just as unrealistic and unreasonable as financial commitments. No matter the subject matter, commitments defy change and time. That is why they are losing propositions.

I am certain that readers will find my premise here too pessimistic. My rhetoric might lead readers to think that I have no faith in commitments. This is not entirely true. I think that some commitments can work, and I admire people who adhere to their word no matter what curveballs life throws at them. Honor and commitment do go hand in hand; honorable people do what they promise. But in many cases honor has less to do with it than blind fortune. Some people live relatively changeless lives. Some people do not regularly suffer terrible upheavals or reversals. Some people make plans and no intervening events foil them. They can fulfill their commitments without complaint because nothing bad happens in the meantime. Is it honorable that they fulfill their word? Certainly. Nonetheless, they benefited from stability and changelessness. They could be honorable because nothing forced their hand. We cannot all be so lucky. Our choices do not always define our path in life. Sometimes we suffer reversals and hardship even if we make all the right moves. By contrast, sometimes everything turns out well even if we repeatedly make asinine decisions. Change affects us all differently. And that is really what determines whether we can fulfill commitments.

Honor means that we adhere to principle no matter the circumstances. It means that we take our commitments seriously. I like to think that I have honor. But I won’t deny that life has its own plan. More often than not, life interrupts our plans, alters our values and forces us to change our assumptions. We see things differently from year to year. And sometimes one year will deal us a disaster that fundamentally disrupts everything we thought was true about life. Time poses these challenges to us all. Thus, while it is good to have honor and to adhere to our word, I do not think it is wrong to modify our commitments when life chops the foundations out from under us. There is nothing honorable or spectacular about adhering to commitments when the very reason for those commitments has vanished. In fact, that would be unreasonable.

Yet honor wields a bothersome mystique. It tells us to feel guilty when we must abandon our word, even if life forces our hand in the matter. But should we feel guilty about reneging on a commitment that was unfair and unrealistic in the first place? Or are we to blame for making the commitment to start? At this point, I cannot ignore power. All too often we make commitments under pressure; and powerful parties use our own honor against us to make us feel bad about failing to live up to their unfair conditions. When we give our word to do something under unfair disadvantages, I do not think it dishonorable to renege if we lose the rigged game.

Of course, the law sees it differently. And the house always wins. “You made a commitment....we don't care what happened to you. Tough luck."

But for the grace of God go we all.

1 comment:

Cassie Bishop said...

Ah, yes.... I find your reflections so utterly refreshing, not unlike a chilled bottle of Dos Equis on a steamy afternoon here in Austin, Texas.... and I'm especially appreciative of your remarks on one of the recent [publisized] incidents of police brutality here in Texas, (which many folks tend to think is, in fact, an exceptionally splendid place to live. I'd beg to differ~ in terms anywhere outside of Austin, that is!!! In any case, Ben, I always look forward to reading your blog. Muchissimas Gracias! Cassie B