I break promises a great deal.

It’s not something I like about myself.

They’re not big promises. I keep grand promises on a grand scale. When I say I will be faithful I am. When I say I will be loyal I am. When I say I will come running if you need me, I mean this, no matter if I’ll be running a few blocks or over half a continent.

It’s the little promises. I break the little promises all the time.

I’ll be ready for that meeting at 1:00. I’ll send your present in the mail today. I’ll bring a bottle of wine for dinner. I’ll call you. I’ll keep in touch. I’ll be thinking of you.

Little things. Scarcely noticeable I tell myself, and yet the guilt I feel when they pass by is real and hard and painful, like a stone in my shoe.

I was reminded, just recently, how it feels when someone breaks a small promise made to me.

It feels terrible.

What a Promise Is

Defining a promise is difficult. You don’t have to actually say the words “I promise” for the promise to be there. It is enough to state, with sincerity, that you intend to do something.

“I will be there. I will send it today. I’ll bring that for you. I’ll remember.”

None of those are expressly stated promises. But if you fail to keep them, fail to deliver on what you said you would do, then you have broken your word.

Quite literally, you gave your word. Your words, if you like.

By creating a rift between what you said would be, and what is, you have splintered this person’s vision of you.

A promise is a statement of who you are. Breaking that promise is splintering your self.

Your Word

We have always thought of our words as being bound up with who we are. There are hundreds of expressions, mostly of contempt, for those whose words do not match up with their deeds. Every act of creation involves speaking words. There are words of power, words of healing, words of strength.

We believe that words are capable of dictating reality.

It hurts us when the word and the reality are at odds with one another. It feels wrong, unnatural. It feels like we have been cheated, and betrayed.

We all know this, so we try to be men and women of our word. We try to be someone who is trustworthy.

We try, and so often fail. We let the little things slide. The little words, the little promises, begin to be broken. We hardly notice. We don’t think it counts.

But it does.

The Rift

I will be there at 7:00, we say, but we run into traffic, we lose track of time, we miscalculate. We are there at 7:10, and even though this is a tiny amount of time, even though we are only so late, even though we more or less showed up when we said we would, the person who is waiting for us is hurt.

They don’t say anything, because after all, it was only ten minutes.

And they have been late themselves.

But this small rift between the word and the truth troubles them. They begin to think: this is not someone whose word can be trusted.

If it never happens again, or happens so rarely as to prove itself an aberration, then the consequences are minor. It hurts briefly but never again, or very seldom, and we can trust that the world will occasionally conspire against our intentions. We’re accustomed to small hiccups in reality: déjà vu, tricks of the light, distorted perspectives.

We can take a small distortion, and correct our image of the person as time goes on and shows no flaw in the picture.

We cannot endure crack after crack after crack. The image will not hold.

If we show ourselves to break our word constantly, however briefly, however minor the rift between word and deed, we are damaged as people.

A Broken Image

Our inherent goodness is called into question when our word and our reality part ways.

Even if you are the only one who knows the extent of your broken promises, sometimes this is even worse. If you cannot trust your own word, who can?

I’m struggling with this, with the idea that I have been carelessly tarnishing my word over time with tiny broken promises. Hardly noticeable, until you add them up, until they become a crack that runs through my whole frame.

It’s a slow practice, but a good one. The little promises matter just as much.

I no longer put things off because I am tired, or afraid, or disinterested. I didn’t promise this person I would be there unless I was distracted, unless there was traffic, unless there was a delay.

I promised I would be there.

I am more careful about where I give my word. If I think there may be a chance I’ll be late to that 7:00 meeting, I say so when we make the appointment. I say I’ll do my best, but I may be a little late.

I do not promise that I will be there at 7:00. I promise I will do my best. And then I do.

And when I do promise, irrevocably, that I will deliver the project by Friday, then I do everything in my power to make that happen. It doesn’t matter that I had a week’s worth of writer’s block, or that a thousand other projects demanded my attention, or that my friend is on the phone and needs me.

It’s not negotiable. It’s not something I can let go another day. I promised.

I gave my word.

The Difference

It’s difficult to allow yourself the little backslides you once permitted once you make this shift.

Delivering on that promise is no longer separate from you. It isn’t a missed deadline. It isn’t being late to an appointment. It isn’t forgetting to call.

It’s breaking your word.

For all of us, this hurts. The idea that when you allow things to slide, when you procrastinate, when you miss a delivery – that this is somehow a mark on your character stings. Because we know how often we do this.

I know how often I do it. It hurts me to think on it. It hurts me to mentally tally the number of times my word and my self have been at odds.

And yet…

It’s not acceptable to continue to do it when I know better.

This is how I’ll continue to look at all the little promises. I’ll remember that I want to be a person whose word is good. If I am forced to break my word through some cataclysmic circumstance, then I will call the person to whom I have broken this promise and ask forgiveness. I will not make excuses. I will say, I am sorry I broke my promise to you. This is what happened. I hope you can understand.

I hope you can forgive me.

We don’t often do this. We usually break promises and say, “Sorry, couldn’t help it, something came up at the last minute.”

This doesn’t matter to the person who had a promise broken. It still hurts them. They still lived through the rift between what you said would be and what was. They still had their reality painfully distorted, even if only for fifteen minutes. And it was painful to them.

It’s worth apologizing. It’s worth asking for forgiveness, and understanding.

It’s worth making good on your word.

Comments

  1. This post touched my heart and a flood of my own broken promises came rushing at me. I recall a story someone told me about what a promise is. A father spoke to his daughter as he was headed to the office that morning. He kissed her on the head and said, “I’ll be home for dinner tonight.” She looked up at him with big dark eyes and said, “Do you promise?” “Yes,” he said. “I promise.” “Because Daddy,” she said, “a promise is a promise. When you break it, it’s a lie.”

    1. Lovely story. Thank you for telling it.

  2. Alannah shared:

    While reading this, I was thinking not of the little promises I’ve broken to others, but the BIG promise I am in danger of breaking for myself… not pursuing my dream. I’ve been in a kind of limbo/holding pattern for a number of reasons, and while I know there’s no way I will NOT pursue this dream (eventually), reading this reminded me that every day I am not working towards it is like breaking the promise to myself. Definitely something I needed to hear.

    Also, less than a week ago, one of the most important people in my life broke a huge promise to me. The end of your piece, where you wrote about the painful distortion between what was said and what was spoke exactly to my situation. I have been thinking about how my recent experience with this broken promise will inform my future interactions with others. I never want to be the one to do that to someone else.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful piece of writing.

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There Are Three Portals. Choose Wisely

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I grew up believing in stories the way some believe in God.

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THE LETTER: VIGNETTES AND VARIATIONS

Between each story I think a lot. I scratch out drafts, change words, decide to tell it through someone else's eyes. Every morning, I write out a sketch of what I'm trying to grasp, and over time it's taken the form of a letter.

These letters are personal, unpolished, and precarious. They're also where you'll first hear about new unfurlings as I create them. If this all sounds like your brand of whiskey, tell me your name, and give me a place where letters of this sort can be received.

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