What exactly is a promise?

I remember years ago, not long after graduating from high school, I was romantically involved with someone and we were convinced we would always be together. She offered me her high school ring, but under a condition. "You must promise me that you will always wear it." Perhaps it was my rampant pragmaticism or sense of realism, but I rejected her condition. After all, if I had made that promise and kept it I would still be wearing the high school ring of someone I haven't seen or talked to in fifteen years. My wife would probably find that slightly disturbing. At the height of passion or when you are in the midst of feeling like this is the be all and end all, some things sound like a great promise to make. Yet, that day I began to serious wonder.

What exactly is a promise?

A promise is an oath you make on your honor that you will hold yourself to. There is the sworn promise and then there is the perceived promise. The nature of a perceived promise is when the other party accepts your "Sure, I'd love to come" as a promise. "But you promised!" The sworn promise involves you actually vowing to do what you promise. The blurring of the lines between perception and true promises are part of the problem. The problem is that the promise is being watered down.

What exactly is a promise?

Friends and relatives often ask if I will be able to attend functions or make visits for the holidays. My response is always "I will see what is happening closer to the date, it is hard to tell right now." To commit before you are certain of your ability to attend a function or make a trip puts you in the position of making a perceived promise and then possibly breaking it. The perceived promise is on the very edge of the true promise. When the words "I promise" trip out from between your lips, it should mean something. However, for many people their promises are up for re-interpretation at any given moment. They make excuses for breaking promises based on their lack of foresight at the time. They use the promise to lure an associate into their bed. They make promises to entice a friend to loan them money, or their car, or their weed whacker. Whatever works at the moment to get them what they want at the time is fair game to them. They violate the sanctity of the promise.

"Your promise means nothing."

I listened the other day as a co-worker of mine said this to another co-worker. The co-worker being doubted was the type of person who often says "I promise I'll get to that today" and then finds himself so swamped with work that he completely forgets to do what he has promised. He uses the word "promise" too frequently and too easily. For him it is a matter not only of syntax, but of learned behavior. He told me that he always says he promises to do things because "it makes people go away faster." So, a promise, which is supposed to be a sworn oath becomes merely a convenient way of convincing people you will do something merely to get them out of your hair.

"In general, a declaration, written or verbal, made by one person to another, which binds the person who makes it to do, or to forbear to do, a specified act; a declaration which gives to the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act."
--Webster 1913

So according to your friend and mine, Mr. Webster, a promise binds the promise maker to do what is promised and also gives the promise accepter the right to expect that the promise be honored. For those who throw around their promises too lightly, I have a simple solution. The next time one of those promises you really aren't 100% sure you'll keep begins to trip off your tongue, try saying this instead:

"I promise I will try."

And then we'll find a Promise Breakers Twelve Step Program for you. Don't worry, it will be okay. You are not alone.