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On The Importance of Breaking Promises

by | Anger, Marriage

I’ve been a promise keeper for most of my life, only breaking promises when left with no other choice – when a murmur in my heart began pounding so loud that it overruled me. There was the relationship that lacked kindness and mutuality – the friendship laced in honey and venom.

Backed into a corner, I’d reach a tipping point, culminating into a reinterpretation of a commitment a former version of myself had made. It was visceral. My body would hijack me, revoking my privilege to call the shots. I’d wake at night. Lose my appetite. Develop an aversion to hugging or sex with a partner that I inexplicably could not leave and simultaneously could not endure.

Keeping promises indeed builds trust and is essential. But there are many types of promises. Some sworn out loud, pinkies crossed, blood bonded — others dwell in the spaces between words and live out their days as acts: Devotion, steadfastness, and presence, to name a few. We entrust ourselves and each other, explicitly and implicitly, it’s inherently risky business.

So begins a journal entry I wrote on the heels of a stormy argument with my eleven-year-old daughter. She was enraged at me for revoking her much-loved video game on my iPad and, in turn, breaking a promise to her. I had made this promise with all the necessary ingredients; it was born (as promises often are) of love, right intention, and thoughtfulness. It was a seemingly small breach that felt huge to her, and it had transpired because she had not kept more subtle promises to me. In the face of her legitimate tween desire for justice and reliability, she could not fathom how her go-to person might commit such an act of betrayal, and she was both seething and despondent in the aftermath of the atrocity.

I, on the other hand, was at a loss and found myself pulled in opposing directions. Integrity: what I choose to do when no one is looking, is core to my identity. But to live alone with a pre-teen girl is always to have someone looking – to be always a source of inspiration, hypocrisy, and example. And my daughter was looking, and from her perspective, I was reneging – I was not good for my word.

But taking my emotional pulse, trusting my gut, and mindfully following through on where it leads me, this, I also hold core. For me, living fifty-one years as a cis-gendered female has translated into thirty-four years of therapy to hear myself. It’s resulted in a fierce belief that if I can’t know and abide by my heart, I will (in time) become useless to those around me. I have wished this wasn’t so. I’ve avoided grief like a swallow dodges an owl. 

When I was eight, I found a fledgling sparrow nestled peacefully under a raspberry thicket. To my eye, the sleepy bird looked unmarred. Lovingly, I carried the delicate creature home and gently placed it in a cardboard box lined with maple leaves and grass. I made a makeshift food dish from a mason jar lid and filled it with Wonder Bread dunked in milk. “That bird will not live to see tomorrow,” my father matter-of-factly declared as he peered over my shoulder while silently, I hated him. 

I did not yet understand how death can come stealthily – how life (and love) can sometimes disappear through infinitesimal moments that occur so subtly we mistake them for just another day. The bird didn’t live. 

Thirty-five years later, I would stand in a kitchen, as new motherhood, a shattered marriage, and middle age converged upon me. I can still remember the bucketful of rock crabs placed on ice in a porcelain sink – fruits of an afternoon’s excursion off Maine’s coast on a hot August day. I was boiling a pot of water while my towheaded girl in her lemon dotted dress circled my knees. A husband one room away, yet nowhere to be found. How I dropped the crabs into the scalding liquid – tossing them like pebbles, while calmly watching them convulse. My forearm arm singed by the bubbling broth. Glancing out the window overlooking the shore, I imagined myself wading into the tide and surrendering to the ocean. To be both buoyant and weighted – this is how I want to live, and it’s how I hope to die. 

There are moments in life when the most relational thing we can do is choose ourselves. When we must take a fierce inventory of who we are and accountability becomes more important than responsibility. 

My girl once said that she felt literal grief over having to dispose of a cup that her root beer float came in. “Grief?” I asked, perplexed. “Yes, I feel sadness and missing for the having and holding of that root beer float in that cup.” Her desire to not experience loss and to do no harm is as beautiful as it is scary. 

I’ve decided to teach my daughter that breaking promises to others is a critical skill when juxtaposed against the trauma of breaking a promise to oneself. To teach her to kill, as well as to nurture. That promises are living, evolving embodiments of trust, and that the art of their execution (literally and figuratively) lies in trusting oneself and permission-giving. Death is embedded in all promises, kept or broken, but so is life, and in turn, promises anew.

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