Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Keeping the Promises We Make to Ourselves

 I am writing this blog post today for one reason only.

Today is September 30th, and I promised myself I'd write four blog posts this month, and so far I've only written three. So today is the day I have to write blog post number four.

That is to say, I'm writing this blog post in order to keep a promise to myself.

Philosophers debate whether promises to oneself are actually binding. Some philosophers point out that if I make a promise to you, I don't have to keep it if you release me from it. If you say, "Claudia, I've decided that it's fine with me if you don't do that," then, Poof! I no longer have to do that. The promise no longer binds me. So if I make a promise with myself, why can't Claudia say to Claudia, "Dear Claudia, I, Claudia, have decided that it's fine with me if you don't do that." Why isn't this a parallel Poof! moment? No court of law is going to enforce a contract made between me, myself, and I. 

But other philosophers reply that a promise is a promise, and the entire point of promises is to bind. If promises MATTER, why don't promises I make to myself matter, too?

I'm here to say that for me, they do. I don't have a well-worked-out philosophical argument for this conclusion. Mine is more of a pragmatic claim: keeping the promises I make to myself has made a huge difference in my life. 

Now, these are small promises. Or, rather, promises to do small things. The two main promises I've made and (mostly) kept are: 1) write for an hour a day; 2) walk for an hour a day. Yes, I break these promises frequently, but I keep them more often than I break them, and I'm able to keep them precisely because they require only two hours out of twenty-four. But small things done faithfully produce astonishing results.

My literary hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, completed dozens of huge, sprawling novels by keeping the promise he made to himself to write a fixed number of words every morning. In a line I  have engraved upon my heart, he explained, "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water-drop that hollows the stone." Of course, he was the one who gave himself the law that required his daily writing stint. And I'm the one who has given me the law that requires mine. But obeying these laws produced 60 published books for me and made him one of the greatest figures of English literature. 

Keeping my small-but-mighty promises to myself has freed me to do a better job of keeping the promises I make to others. Somehow life has given me a considerable load of caregiving responsibilities for other people, and I'm not someone who is temperamentally suited to caregiving. (I joke that after dumping me, all the old boyfriends married nurses.) I would start to feel bitter about caregiving, and do it with an even more grudging heart, if I didn't keep these inviolable promises I've made to myself. But once I have kept my promises to me, I can be cheerfully generous for the rest of the day to others.

So here is my fourth blogpost for the month, dear friends. And now I can cross it off the month's to-do list with my trusty red pen and a relieved "Ta-dah!"

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