A promise is a commitment you make with your heart. Promises are not like other decisions that we make that have open ended options of easy termination if it doesn’t suit our needs or doesn’t make us happy. The act of promising releases the right to reason on some level, because keeping a promise requires us to go beyond reason. Staying true to our word in spite of the inconvenience and discomfort is the core of a promise.
In the days of Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table made a vow and were sanctimoniously knighted. They knew their promise was a sacrament. While there were moments of romantic adventure, they were signing on with their lives for the ordeal that the promise would demand of them.
Loving someone carries this kind of promise. Different from the heady falling in love stage or the romantic whirlwind of the love affair, authentic love that lasts is an agreement to give up our own personal simplicity in exchange for the continuous yielding that creates and sustains relationships. This long term commitment to love is also an ordeal of sorts, one that changes the participants each time they agree to keep loving.
Keeping a promise to love is a lifetime of saying yes to your relationship. When it works the partners understand that they are not really giving to each other, but rather to the relationship, which makes the sacrifices of personal satisfaction life building instead of impoverishing.
There are all kinds of commitments in which we make this kind of loving vow. Marriage, parenting and devotion to a career path all provide a context which require us to go beyond the “reasonable” and to give more than we believe we are capable. It is in these crises that the promises we make are the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes even now after 24 years of marriage, the best reason I have for staying is because I said I would.
Promises are hard to keep for two reasons. Coming up with the constant willingness to stay put and do the work is an act of faith and courage which we don’t always know how to find. In addition, it is often long after we make a promise that we realize that our promise to one person or situation precludes our availability to everyone and everything else. Choosing a specific career path is also closing a door to so many others. Committing to a partner excludes this kind of intimacy with all the other intriguing people we meet. A huge world of possibility closes with each promise we make.
This may be why there were only twelve knights at that Round Table. It is heroic work to make and keep a promise. It is not for the faint-hearted. What most people who quit on their promises don’t know is that the moments when it seems impossible to say yes one more time, or the weight of the commitment is unbearable is the very moment when your promise has the most to teach. Each time you pass through this threshold with your integrity intact, the promise and the love grows large enough to hold whatever inside of you wants to break it down.