The Wonderful Thing About Broken Promises

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One of the most important things to remember about other people is this:

They won’t.

Your school teacher says she’ll take the class for ice cream. But she won’t.

The store clerk says he’ll gladly refund you if the shoes don’t fit. But he won’t.

Your old acquaintance says she’ll text you when she’s in town. But she won’t.

The guy handing out loans says he’ll see what he can do for you. But he won’t.

Your classmate says she’ll send you her essay when she’s done. But she won’t.

The professor says he’ll only use class material for the exam. But he won’t.

Your waitress says she’ll be right back with your drink. But she won’t.

Your date says they’ll call you. But they won’t.

One way of looking at this is that it’s just sad. The fact that humans don’t value their own word must be one of the biggest reasons the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I, too, wish we could all grow up without losing that spark of hope in our six-year-old eyes and never be disappointed. But we can’t.

What we can do is change our perspective to at least try and turn this weight into a stepping stone. So here’s another point of view: every broken promise is a chance to be compassionate.

An opportunity to think “I hope he’s alright” instead of “he’s dead to me.” A shot at considering they, too, might’ve been given nothing but broken promises all their life. A wonderful excuse to reduce your expectations of flawed humans in a world we all struggle with.

Practicing this is hard. But compassion is the right answer. How do I know?

Well, here’s another change of perspective: you are other people’s “other people.” To them, you’re the one who won’t.

We all fail to follow through sometimes. No one’s perfect. But my guess is you, like most of us, don’t make promises and break them on purpose. Do you?

People are good at heart. It’s how we’ve come to be so many in the first place. We do look out for one another. That horrible picture of human nature the news continues to paint was never accurate. Still isn’t. If it had been at any point, we’d long be extinct. Therefore, the odds of being in the wrong when you forgive others are so low, it’s not even a risk worth taking.

When you give others the benefit of the doubt, you can also more easily extend this graciousness to yourself. Because whenever you break a promise, that’s also an opportunity — one to show yourself compassion. Maybe you needn’t shoulder all that much. Maybe you don’t have to make so many commitments. To live up to all these self-created obligations.

Promises are hope manufactured by humans. And we tend to oversupply.

Let’s switch perspectives one last time: Life doesn’t make any promises. We’re all born with high hopes, but none of them were ever advertised to us as guaranteed to come true. None of them. To no one.

In the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient, spiritual text of Hinduism, Prince Arjuna is led into battle by his guide and charioteer Lord Krishna. There are many interpretations of it, but Arjuna likely stands for humanity, while Krishna represents a higher power. The battlefield reflects the many struggles of life.

At one point, Krishna tells Arjuna we have “the right to our labor, but not its fruits.” You can take this literally, of course. Love the process, but don’t get attached to the outcome. Given the broader context of the scripture, however, I think it’s worth projecting:

The only reward we get out of life is being alive itself.

This includes beautiful, sunny days, on which you’ll eat way too much ice cream and fall asleep in your dream partner’s arms, as much as it includes the days you break down crying in the subway because you’re broke, desperate, and that partner just left you. Gratitude for being able to experience both is the one gift that keeps on giving.

But it’s a gift we must learn to keep receiving and that itself takes a lifetime. Our own failure to accept this is that we’re truly disappointed with when others don’t keep their word with us. Not that our friends were five minutes late. It is out of this universal disappointment that individual anger arises, which we throw at whoever happens to feel like a close, appropriate target at the time.

No, people won’t always keep their promises. And you won’t either. But if you can remember that it’s neither what we do nor what we say but the time we spend here together that makes life worth living, even broken words will weave the fabric of the experience. TC mark

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