I believe in promises. I believe in promises because I also believe in two principles that seem, even to me, incompatible and mutually exclusive. They cannot both be right, I fear, but somehow they exist side by side in my mind, contradicting one another and yet together forming the core of my personal philosophy.
The first principle is that promises ought to be kept. Not a shockingly new idea, I’ll grant you. I find its most eloquent expression in Ecclesiastes: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.” And I should say right here that I consider any promise made to be, de facto, a promise to God, even the promise made to a niece to really, really, really show up this year for her spring clarinet recital, and not miss it and make excuses, like last year. Keeping promises does me good–especially the hard ones–because it is a reaffirmation that there exist principles that are bigger and matter to me more than my own convenience or self-interest, narrowly defined.
My second principle is that even unfulfilled promises are valuable—sometimes even essential. This is because once a big promise is made, or even implied, there is no such thing as taking it back entirely. Cast a dry fly onto a still pond and ripples begin spreading outward from it. And they keep on spreading steadily toward every shore, even if you pull the fly back for another cast.
Two of my most admired historical figures built their lives around their instinctive understanding of the power of unfulfilled promises. It was only because Gandhi was dealing with the British Empire, a superpower that at least claimed to value rule of law and fair dealing, that he was able to convince them that they must leave India, because to stay would have been a betrayal of what they said they stood for. Likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr. never could have achieved so much if he did not have a vast canon of beloved promises to point to over and over, patiently but insistently–“All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and so on.
These principles can’t both be right–that promises are to be kept, but unkept promises are okay, too. But now it seems to me that these conflicting principles really are more than right—they are true. And what cements them together into an arch strong enough to support the rest of my philosophy is the conclusion that, despite all the villainy, cruelty and lunacy in human history, our species actually is programmed to work for the fulfillment of the promises we make—big and small—in the service of justice and truth. Sometimes it just takes a long, long while.
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