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Commitment

"Men canít commit." That was a criticism I heard from women a long time ago (maybe around the time of the beginning of "womenís liberation," but Iím not sure). I protested, of course, that it was a wild generalization. Certainly I was not like that. Still, as with most stereotypes, it clung to my unconscious and lifted its head and nodded each time I observed an inconstancy in myself or in others.

My defensiveness kept looking for ways out of the cage in which I found myself. Mostly, in my mind, the word had to do with the relations between men and women. In my early adulthood, the difference between menís and womenís responsibilities in a relationship were considerable. Of course, the woman had to contend with children. The man, however, had to provide for the safety and sustenance of the family. Some men felt trapped by the social consequences of their biological inclinations. The "commitment" word was a weapon.

I lived with all kinds of other commitmentsóthat determination to see something through, to ignore little fears and losses of interest that accompany every long-term enterprise. Some were so integrated into my psyche that I wasnít even aware of them. Perseverance seems different from commitment. It is a conscious thing that weighs goals and costs and benefits. When I joined a military service soon after high school, it was made clear that there were severe consequences to quitting. "Itís only four years," I said a number of times, "I can put up with just about anything for four years." I didnít have to be committed. I had only to persevere. A few years after my hitch I found myself far enough along in a college program that it seemed foolish not to stay with it for the degree, even though I had begun the program rather casually, taking a couple of courses at a time as they interested me. "I can do it," was another word for perseverance.

After living through a number of relationships with women over the years and choosing to end some of them for one reason or another, I took on the burden of that stereotype, "Men canít commit," and regularly flagellated myself with it. Then one day I realized that it wasnít just me, and it wasnít just men. One woman I was involved with made a point of telling me early in our relationship that she had a hard time with commitment. She had diabetes, and had lived for years with the certainty that she would die early. To her, nothing was forever. Nothing was certain except death, and it was pointless to count on anyone or anything. We talked a lot about it, and I began to examine my life in a different way. Each of my previous serious relationships had ended after I had lost something important to itóa faith in the commitment of the other person to our relationship. Until the situation that neutralized my faith, I was certain that the relationship would last forever. However reasonable or not my justification might have been, I hadnít simply said, "Itís been fun, but goodbye." That realization gave me the psychic space to look at the whole subject of commitment.

True commitment is an almost unconscious thing. I discover it. I donít "make a commitment." I make, if anything, a promise to myself or to someone else. If my promise is based upon my commitment, itís easy to keep. If a promise comes only from expediency or negotiation, itís an agreement with the purpose of getting something from someone else, and its strength depends upon less substantial aspects of the relationship. (Paul Simon sang, "I have squandered my resistance / For a pocketful of mumbles, / Such are promises / All lies and jest . . .")

To be sure, some people take their promises seriously. "A man of his word" is a compliment. Swearing on a bible used to be an epitome of seriousness, sufficient for courts of law. Wedding vows used to be (and some still are, Iím sure) evidence of commitment. For some people, a public promise carries greater weight than a private one. If a person values his or her integrity, a promise made is a substantial constraint on oneís freedom.

Commitment doesnít seem to be attached to any single thing, such as a promise. Itís possible, I suppose, that it can grow out of a promise that becomes sufficiently internalized. But it seems deeper, by far, than even determination.

Another personís faith in my commitment gives them assurance that my future behavior is more predictable. That faith may be misplaced. (Paul Simonís song goes on, "Still, a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest.") I was once surprised by my employer by being laid off, when I had felt secure in my job. In retrospect, I think I should have seen it coming. Itís in regard to promisesóthe external expressionsóthat commitment has any relation to moral imperatives. Unless we share true intimacy with someone else, we canít know of their commitment. And even then . . .

The commitment issue comes up particularly when itís in question. At that point, the easy thing is to ask for a promise and depend upon social or legal pressure to enforce it. Thatís the nature of a contract. (Isnít it interesting that a wedding certificate doesnít include the words of the vows made in the ceremony? The certificate means only what the state says it means. The contract, if there is one, is an entirely separate document.) The only thing in the law even suggesting the existence of commitment is the very revealing yet vague expression "in good faith." That gets into fuzzy territory at the fringes of law, where we are reminded of the moral basis of civil behavior.

The closer we come, in our examination of commitment, the less clear cut it is. That is not to say itís unimportant. It may be irrelevant to the law, which cannot see inside a personís head. But in our everyday relationshipsóespecially in our everyday relationshipsócommitment has great meaning. It seems vital, then, to tease it out into the open, to examine its presence or absence in ourselves and be clear about its part in our relationships. We like to believe that we are in control of our behavior, but thatís largely an illusion. Knowing ourselves is a different thing. Difficult as it is, it seems accessible. Discovering our commitments can take us a long way toward knowing ourselves.

 

November 12, 2003

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