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Bound in Promise

Promise and unforgiveness are the only two ways you are ever bound to another person in the domain of human relationships.

There’s a lot to explore to confirm that this bold statement is true and it may be the work of several posts.  But let’s begin.

In a recent post about forgiveness, I made the point that forgiveness is interpersonal—that it is in essence a transaction between two people and therefore there is no sense in attempting to forgive oneself.  The source of the debt that forgiveness inevitably deals with is a promise—whatever you were explicitly or implicitly promised.

In Webster’s original 1828 dictionary promise is defined as follows:

1. In a general sense, a declaration, written or verbal, made by one person to another, which binds the person who makes it, either in honor, conscience or law, to do or forbear a certain act specified; a declaration which gives to the person to whom it is made, a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of the act. The promise of a visit to my neighbor, gives him a right to expect it, and I am bound in honor and civility to perform the promise. Of such a promise human laws have no cognizance; but the fulfillment of it is one of the minor moralities, which civility, kindness and strict integrity require to be observed.

2. In law, a declaration, verbal or written, made by one person to another for a good or valuable consideration, in the nature of a covenant, by which the promiser binds himself, and as the case may be, his legal representatives, to do or forbear some act; and gives to the promisee a legal right to demand and enforce a fulfillment.

3. A binding declaration of something to be done or given for another’s benefit; as the promise of a grant of land. A promise may be absolute or conditional; lawful or unlawful; express or implied. An absolute promise must be fulfilled at all events. The obligation to fulfill a conditional promise depends on the performance of the condition. An unlawful promise is not binding, because it is void; for it is incompatible with a prior paramount obligation of obedience to the laws. An express promise is one expressed in words or writing. An implied promise is one which reason and justice dictate. If I hire a man to perform a day’s labor, without any declaration that I will pay him, the law presumes a promise on my part that I will give him a reasonable reward, and will enforce much implied promise.

Let’s highlight just a piece of that wonderfully clear definition: “a declaration, written or verbal, made by one person to another, which binds the person who makes it, either in honor, conscience or law, to do or forbear a certain act.”  Given that promise is made by one person to another it is, like forgiveness, interpersonal; plus promise binds the person promising to do or forbear (not do) a specific act in relation to the person promised.  Thus making a promise creates an obligation to the person promised and that obligation exists in one or more of the domains of honor, conscience, or law.  In our current culture, our concern in regards to action has devolved to a focus nearly exclusively on legality; we have become very rusty in the domains of honor and conscience, but I’ll have to take that up on another occasion.

Honor is the domain of our public reputation, the level of esteem that we carry in the eyes of others.  We are bound in honor to keep a promise because when we don’t we get a reputation of being undependable, untrustworthy, flaky.

Conscience is the domain of our own internal sense of right and wrong; our internal judgment of our own actions.  I believe that promise is an aspect of natural law; the nature of being human, and is not just a social convention that is negotiated and flexible.  As demonstration of promise being a natural law, consider the reaction of a young child to a promise; let’s say the promise to go to the park after lunch.  If after lunch, something comes up and you don’t take your child to the park, they will react and feel the loss of what is promised—maybe they cry, demand, and so on.

Law of course is the domain of explicitly stated prohibitions put in place by a specific government entity with appropriate domain.

Promise is one of a number of speech acts called ‘performative language,’ which are characterized because the act of speaking a promise actually creates the promise.  When you explicitly (or implicitly) say ‘I promise’ a promise is created.  This is different from ‘descriptive language’ which is a pointer to something else.  For example when you say ‘a car’ a car isn’t created.

Random acts of kindness don’t carry the same impact as a promise.  Think of our young child again.  If after lunch you end up going to the park, the child while undoubtedly would enjoy the trip, there was never any expectation of going like there is in the case of promising to go to the park.

Now you may be thinking “this is all well and good Derek, but so what?”

If you are feeling isolated from others; if you are feeling disconnected from your friends and loved ones, it may be because you haven’t made promises that further your relationship with them.

Application:  “What promises can I make to my friends, family, and loved ones that will further and deepen my connection and relationship with them?”

January 12, 2013  Leave a comment

Ready to Receive

In the car yesterday, I was flipping through my iPod and ended up playing all my Morten Harket songs.  My favorite is from Wild Seed, called Ready to Go Home, the first bit of which is

On the street below these walls

Where I used to walk

Now I can barely crawl

All this darkness rising tall

Lord, shine a light for me

I’m waiting to be called

I’m ready to go home

I’m ready to receive forgiveness for my sins

I’m ready to begin

The line that struck me anew is “I’m ready to receive forgiveness for my sins”.  Our culture has gotten off into the weeds on the concept and reality of forgiveness.  The biggest error is when people say things like “I can’t forgive myself for…”  The reason you can’t forgive yourself is because it is impossible!  There’s no sense to the statement; but that it is so commonly said points to the mass confusion or maybe the mass delusion in our Western culture (actually I don’t know if it is a Western culture confusion or just an American culture confusion).

So let’s go back to the basics.  Forgiveness is a transaction between two people (similar to promises but that’s another post).  This truth is easiest seen in the banking realm, so consider Person A goes to Bank B and asks for a loan which B grants A.  So A executes a promissory note (there’s that promise post trying to intrude) in favor of B which specifies the terms of the loan – the interest rate, the frequency of payments, the length of the loan, and so on.

If A ends up not meeting the terms of the promissory note and is unable to pay B back the principle and interest, it is possible (but not frequent in banking) that B can forgive A the loan.  Which means that A from that point forward no longer owes B anything.  So the essence of forgiveness is that A owes B something (explicitly or implicitly, for example parents owe their children love and care whether they actually ever explicitly pledged it – it is owed because of the nature of the relationship) and B can choose to forgive A that what was owed was not delivered.

To say that you want to forgive yourself is like taking money from your grocery budget and putting it into the electric bill category… no money has actually changed hands, to forgive that ‘loan’ doesn’t change the overall amount of money in the budget.

Of course when folks say that they can’t forgive themselves they aren’t talking about money, because if they did they’d realize how ludicrous it sounds.  No they are talking about things they did or didn’t do to others, or poor choices they made and regret, or other aspects of their pasts that they in retrospect wish had come down differently.

Back to Morton’s lyrics.  What struck me is that when people say they can’t forgive themselves, perhaps they are saying that they aren’t yet ready to receive forgiveness.  They don’t want to yet leave debtor’s prison.  Why would any of us prefer to stay bound up rather than be free?

The problem with freedom (another post begging to be written) is that with freedom comes responsibility, and people are uncomfortable with the weight and reality of responsibility.  If you are truly free, blaming someone for the outcome or the current state-of-affairs is as ludicrous as thinking you owe yourself some money and deciding not to pay it.  But being bound up in the impossible task of trying to forgive yourself is the perfect excuse to remain embedded in your self focus and self pity.

Embracing your freedom and running with it is a gift to the world, and results in a feeling of worth and vitality.  Try it today.  Ready go.

January 11, 2013  Leave a comment

The Dawn of Conscience

Conscience is a concept quickly sinking out of sight in Western culture.  Maybe because it is hard to say distinctly from ‘conscious’; maybe because the demands of conscience are greater than we’d like.

I’m engaging in a one-man rear-guard action to defend conscience from the searing fires of modern culture.  Today’s battle is with a quote from an early light in Western culture, Leonardo da Vinci (grabbed from the net here):

I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.
Leonardo da VinciLet’s begin the study of conscience by examining it as if it were a foreign concept, in isolation.  So from this quote we can discern that conscience is involved in the approving (and therefore the disapproving) of one’s one conduct.  An internal sense of the rightness or wrongness of our own actions.  The essential quality being that the jurisdiction of our conscience is our own choices and acts; in 1 Corinthians 10:29, Paul writes “for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”  It may be tempting to extend the reach of our conscience in judgment of others, but it is not appropriate.

January 6, 2013  Leave a comment

The Methusaleh Pill

I have long been eager for the unveiling of the Methusaleh Pill.  While casting about the internet just now, I searched for references to the Methusaleh Pill, not knowing if I had heard of it sometime and someplace, or if I had just coined the term myself.  Alas, I’m not the only inventive dreamer out there and there were plenty of references.

I ran across one blog post, written several years ago, that covers some of the ground in longevity research, but then dives deeply into the downsides the author saw society would run into with the advent of the Methusaleh Pill.

Let’s consider some of them.

“Generational milestones in our life will have lesser meaning – marriage, kids, education certificates, kids, their marriage, grandkids, grandparents.”

Depends on the person I suppose.  Plenty of folks even with today’s short lives, seem to have difficulty in finding meaning in the milestones of life.  I would think that the real question is the more general one of where one finds meaning in life.  I come back to the part of the Rule of St. Benedict that I quoted here, that suggests neither the search for wealth nor the desire for heaven are routes to a meaningful life.  With the Methusaleh Pill the personal growth industry will be in even bigger demand.  At least with short lives, the brutishness of it all is manageable.  With long, perhaps virtually infinite life span, the need for finding satisfaction, peace, and inner calm will be greater than ever.

Another objection is that with the old folks hanging around longer, the progress up the management ladder at work will be even slower.  This objection seems grounded in the thought that the technology behind the Methusaleh Pill will be disconnected from progress in other areas.  The Post-Scarcity Age will be radically different.  Imagine if every physical need could be meet at nearly zero cost.  The basis of current economic theory (scarcity) will itself be scarce.  Again personal growth will need to come to our aid, as life for each of us will be like that of the super-rich: we will all be retired and not have to work.  Work will be more avocation that what is required not to starve.  Many of the other objections the blog’s author cites are all related to thinking that scarcity would continue, and perhaps become worse.

The struggles will be internal, not external, in the Post-Scarcity Age.  Time to pickup and reread Amusing Ourselves to Death!

January 5, 2013  Leave a comment

Provided in a Spirit of Goodwill

Yesterday I mentioned that on and off over the past decade I’ve read (and attempted to follow) a modern interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, called Always We Begin Again by John McQuiston II.  I recommend searching out a copy.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning chapter called “The First Rule”—

Attend to these instructions, listen with the heart and the mind; they are provided in a spirit of goodwill.

These words are addressed to anyone who is willing to renounce the delusion that the meaning of life can be learned; whoever is ready to take up the greater weapon of fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding.

The first rule is simply this: live this life and do whatever is done in a spirit of Thanksgiving.

Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile, give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning, quit the search for salvation, it is selfish, and come to comfortable rest in the certainty that those who participate in this life with an attitude of Thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

Challenging words to be sure that seem to hit me in the primary hidey holes I flee to when insecure—the two paths that seem to spell safety—the worldly way of accumulating wealth and the ‘spiritual’ way of achieving heaven.

January 4, 2013  Leave a comment


I get a weekly thought from Peter Koestenbaum (www.pib.net).  The one that arrived today was interesting in three ways: it quotes Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, which I just happen to be reading as part of a commitment in 2013 to read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  In fact, I’m currently in Act 2, Scene 4, the scene just before the quote.  Secondly I have just yesterday picked up again a small book I’ve had for over a decade that offers a modern interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, the focus of which is to bring a depth of spirit to daily work and living.  Finally I’m in the midst of discovering what direction my working life will proceed in.

Greatness is the decision to live, to say yes to the life force, to choose to be constructive. Depression is not only to have given up the will to live (not “lost” it, for you are responsible) but actually to have chosen its converse – to want to die, to be destructive, to obstruct progress – for the depressed person is not only sad but chooses not to be helped.

Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night (act 2, scene 5), writes, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” How much attention do you give to greatness? ….

The ethical leadership decision to bond meaning with work can go only two ways: resign from work and choose something else that leads to authentic meaning (even though also to poverty), or – and this is what really matters – invest with profound and self-chosen meaning the work that you are now actually doing – or could be doing. That is the Zen of work, the decision to sanctify the work you do – not because the company requires it (which of course it does) but because the salvation of your soul demands that what you do every day be crafted like a poem, be composed like a work of art and illumined by a halo of profound significance.

January 3, 2013  Leave a comment

Thinking Verbally

The English language sometimes leads us astray.

For example: the phrase ‘taking responsibility’ as in ‘I take responsibility for my actions.’  Using English in this way skews us of thinking of responsibility as something I can take and therefore have, like how I can take a quarter and put it in my pocket.  When I do that, I have the quarter in my pocket, and if I don’t do anything further, I’ll have the quarter still.

When I ‘take responsibility,’ I seem to have it like the quarter in my pocket; but the reality of the matter is a bit different, as responsibility is the relation I am taking toward something.

The relational nature of responsibility is more clearly revealed by using the phrase ‘being responsible.’  With this ‘verbal’ phrasing, the natural follow on questions are ‘to whom am I responsible’ and ‘for what am I responsible.’  It also makes it harder to think that responsibility is something I have.  Instead, I realize that I must continuously choose to maintain my attitude of responsibility toward that person for whatever I have promised.  Much harder to shirk the responsibility when I realize it is a moment-to-moment relationship I create, and that if I am not conscious and aware of my choosing, I’ll default to selfishness and irresponsibility.

January 2, 2013  Leave a comment

The Natural Blame Game

Being in a blaming mindset seems as easy as waking up in the morning.  Calling it ‘natural,’ is to say that it is part of human nature to point the finger at others and call them out for where they let us down, where they break an explicit or implicit promise to us, where we are disappointed in our relationship with them.  Sadly though blaming someone else just as naturally spurs the person I blame to justify himself and pay me the favor of blaming me in turn.

I was thinking of this pattern in my life due to it’s prevalence and because of reading a book: Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box.  The authors (which is actually listed as an organization – The Arbinger Institute) describe ‘being in the box’ as that mindset wherein we blame others and justify ourselves and our own actions and responses: “What I need most when I’m in the box is to feel justified.  Justification is what my box eats, as it were, in order to survive…. to feel justified, to be right.” (p. 101)

I don’t have the time in this post to cover the many facets of this concept – buy the book!  But I do want to cover two thoughts: where we devote our focus in and out of the box and how to stay out of the blame-game box as much as possible.  The authors suggest that in any moment we have two foci – a what-focus and a who-focus.  When I’m in the box my what-focus is justification, and my who focus is myself.  Out of the box, my what-focus is results and my who-focus is others.

Staying out of the box requires a change of mindset—from focusing on myself to focusing on others.  The fruit of this change opens up the possibility of focusing on and achieving results in a way that honors and respects those we are connected to whether in the domain of marriage, family, work, or volunteer groups.

January 1, 2013  Leave a comment

Further In and Further Up

In the Last Battle, the concluding story of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis ends his tale with the characters entering a stable; for those who didn’t have the ‘eyes to see and the ears to hear’ it was just a pitch-black stable, but for those who did, it was the ‘real world’ perfected: everything clearer, brighter, more substantial in comparison to the world the characters knew.  Aslan himself invites them to “Come further in! Come further up!”  The characters begin running faster and faster without getting winded or tired.  So perhaps they still race further in and further up.

The idea that the characters race on suggests that the story hasn’t ended, that it was just beginning.  Lewis explicitly comments: “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Hebrews 11 indicates that God has placed in us a desire for perfection; a desire to return to the bliss of the Garden of Eden; we each “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).  I believe this desire drives us first to the immediacy of faith—receiving the kingdom of God like a child (Mark 10:15).  Not just by believing, but without conditions, without negotiation, freely and openly.  But eventually the ‘adult’ in us becomes unsatisfied with the ‘on-again / off-again’ experience of life that is the hallmark of a child.  We want something tangible; something we can count on.

Martin Buber in his wonderful book, I and Thou, addresses this reality.  He uses the image of a hunter after prey: sometimes when we go to meet God, we find him and are filled; sometimes we go out and come back empty-handed.  This reality comes against our inner desire for that better country, where we live with God face-to-face, not through a glass darkly.  So we endeavor to turn the experience of the hunter into that of the farmer—by doing certain actions: tilling the soil, planting and watering the seed, we can have some sort of harvest, and therefore be comforted.  Buber suggests that we embark on two approaches to this goal—we gather with those that believe the same, forming as it were the rim of the wheel with God in the center; we also come up with statements of faith that transform that moment of meeting God into something more tangible and more at hand.  These acts at first help bring structure to our meeting God; but eventually they replace that meeting and so religion is born.

Unfortunately religion as described is counter to love because it emphasizes separation and division—who believes like us and who expresses those beliefs in the way we are comfortable with from those who don’t.  Whereas love is a passion for connection, unity, and oneness.

October 27, 2012  Leave a comment


My confusion caused GoDaddy to delete my old blog data.  I blogged inconsistently depending on my paying workload, which has thankfully been good, so inconsistency will continue.  I have the old blog posts and I may repost them occasionally.  Ready go!

May 17, 2012  Leave a comment

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