The Promise

A tweet from Julia Molinari this morning, reflecting on one from Jo Wolff, stirs the memory of a post from my old blog, which, today, almost seems itself a “promise made and not kept.” I am grateful for the reminder.

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I’ve never really taken the time to read Paul Ricoeur very carefully. But I remember a friend of mine once trying to explain his view of “the promise” and it has stuck with me ever since. A promise, says Ricoeur, is a way of transcending yourself, of becoming more than you are. When you make a promise you don’t know that you will keep it, but you commit yourself to it. Promising is an important part of our moral growth.

Ricoeur cites Nietzsche (via Arendt), who described promising as “the memory of the will”. A promise does not refer to something you will necessarily do, but it does refer to something you will-to-do. The promise, then, gives your will some real content; it converts a vague desire into a precise intention. After making a promise, you are not merely hoping something will happen; you have identified your part in making it so.

Obviously, you make promises to yourself and to others. You make promises to your writing self: “Next semester, I promise, I will begin to write that book”; “Next week, I will get the analysis done and finish the discussion section of the paper.” And you can make promises to your reader: “This issue is beyond the scope of this paper, but it will be taken up in later work”; “As I will show below, however, …” Just saying these things does not get them done.

But here’s the important thing: even keeping your promise does not get anything done. I can promise to meet you at seven o’clock by the river. And I can do my part to make that happen. But the meeting may still not take place, for reasons that are beyond our control. I can promise to work on my book all next semester. Keeping this promise will not get it written. And yet, beyond the ultimate results, making promises and making an effort to keep them is essential to our growth as individuals, couples, families, and groups.

When I was younger, I tried not to promise anyone anything because I did not want to fail them. I had a purely negative view of promises—I thought the essential thing about promises was not to break them. As I get older, I understand that promises are valuable also in what happens when we keep them. They help us develop in an orderly way.

Skimming Ricoeur’s book this morning, I note that he connects the act of promising to the act of forgiveness. That is no doubt very important.

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