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October 28th, 2019
What is a promise?
An agreement between people that seeks to make the future a little more certain. It’s a common idea about how the future is going to look. Or at the very least, it’s a common idea about a future people are going to work to bring about.
Promises are sacred things, they pop up in life in the heart of very important events: marriage, baptisms, court proceedings.
Promises address our deepest concern and our greatest fear, namely chaos. Promises represent a one-way direction away from chaos and towards order.
They can be problematic, in the same way a poor question can lead us in fruitless circles.
An example of such poor questions would be: what’s the meaning of life? This is a terrible question because it’s unanswerable, and at the very least it simply produces anxiety, and at the very most it produces bad philosophy.
Promises that lack a thoughtful and dynamic consideration of the future can be likewise problematic, as so many divorces might attest to.
The problem is that the future is unpredictable, and we often bite off more than we can chew when we make a promise about it. Situations change and people change as a result, and naturally situations change when people do. This is a risky dance, and we often sabotage ourselves by thinking we have more control than we actually do.
This isn’t to say that promises can’t be wonderfully useful, it’s only to say that we need to be careful about the promises we make.
A bad promise kept is worse than a good promise broken.
A bad promise kept perpetuates something rotten through time creating an unwanted future, whereas a good promise broken does not necessarily cancel out the possibility of building that originally envisioned future.
Promises may be more like questions than we might at first realize.
A good question often leads to an even better question.
Does a good promise lead to an even better promise?
Perhaps it helps to remember just what promises are addressing: the future.
Let’s rephrase the question:
Can a good vision for the future lead to an even better vision for the future?
This certainly seems to make sense.
As we move forward productively towards one vision, we inevitably discover things we didn’t expect; this is to be expected considering the unpredictable nature of the future.
Any resourceful person is going to put those unanticipated discoveries to good use, and the leverage of such discoveries can easily make that original idea of the future seem less ambitious as a vision of an even better future emerges.
We might even look at this process as a toggle between promises and questions. As we move forward towards a shared vision, our discoveries might inspire the question: is there something even greater that we can shoot for? Inevitably this spawns more and more questions, and as we slowly answer each one, we update our shared idea of what the future can look like.
The mistake that plagues our promises is that we think of them as static entities. They are solid, which inevitably makes them brittle, and easier to break.
Think about it: what’s easier to break?
Or a pool of water.
It’s a trick question of course. How do you break water? We can imagine it frozen, and cracking, just like a rock, but unlike a rock, we can warm those shards, make it all liquid again, put it into the original shape and freeze it. Water is dynamic in a way the stone isn’t.
All this is to say that we make many of our promises as though we are talking about the past. As though we are talking about something that can’t change. But the fact is, when we make a promise we are talking about something that has change at its core.
As we move forward. As we experience more and learn more and understand more. We need to be able to ask: was that the best promise we could make?
Chances are everyone can see something better now.
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