Not infrequently have I head people use the expression, “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep,” but I never took the time to think about the implications of actually taking that to heart. In thinking about it, I realized that the statement has an opposite that is not directly stated, yet still rings out from behind the words in the original. If you should not make promises that you can’t keep, then does that mean that you should make promises that you can make? Probably not, at least not always. But for a moment, I made the thought experiment to see where it would lead, and it led me to think up the phrase, “don’t keep people from making promises that they can make.” I think that this is the real inverse of the first cliché. People often use the phrase about not making promises unless they can be kept as a way to push people away or to keep people from doing things for them. But is that really right? Why try to keep people from making lofty promises?
In the worst case version of the cliché, people actually take it severely enough to make it a guiding principle that overarches major life decisions and relationships. Rather than allow people to open up to them and to open up to other people as well, they are walled-off by the thoughts of not making promises that they are not guaranteed to be able to keep, and they keep people who want to promise things to them away.
The simple fact of the matter is that life is complicated and does not always throw us what we expect. Never making a promise is a guaranteed way to keep one’s word intact, but it also excuses one from ever saying that one will do something for someone. I think that it is really about fear of commitment at the root of the thinking. Rather than be willing to stake a claim and to bet all the chips on one outcome—to work towards that outcome through pure exhaustion if need be—it’s easy to give in and say that it’s really impossible to make that type of promise.
Sometimes it’s the right thing to do to allow people to promise you things, and to bet that they will keep that promise. It’s wrong to indiscriminately disallow any hint of a promise that someone makes, and it’s also wrong to accept any promise that anyone makes. However, it’s not wrong to judge the merit of a person and their word and to be discerning as to whether or not they can be trusted to keep their word.
If someone promises love, devotion, honesty, or effort to change something about themselves, and if it is a promise that you think can keep and those types of promises and you want them to keep and make those promises, why say no? Maybe you could even help them to keep that promise and to encourage them to keep that promise rather than simply writing them off as a sure failure at whatever it is they are promising.
A promise is not always a guarantee, but you can be certain that it’s an indication that the person is serous and passionate about doing what it is he or she said. Maybe give people a chance to keep a promise. Maybe allow people to commit themselves. You may just find that people are able and willing to go beyond your expectations. Perhaps you have decided to expect too little from too many people.