As a minister, I believe that keeping promises is crucial and hold it as one of my highest values. Within a congregation, covenants—which are a series of promises the people in a congregation make to one another—serve to bind individuals together in a community. Promises make it possible for us to trust, to know that certain elements of our lives can be counted on to remain intact. We live within webs of promises. And whenever a promise is broken, restoring that promise becomes urgent so that trust can be restored.
All of which means I was taken aback when I read David Whyte’s poem “To Break a Promise” and his accompanying commentary on the poem that lifted up the importance of sometimes deliberately, willingly, breaking a promise one has made. Whyte considers our promises to be necessary products of the “seasonality” of life and therefore not to be everlasting; on the contrary, Whyte notes that we break a promise in order to go forward from the self we have been to a larger and wiser self, and also to allow those to whom we made a promise also to move on. Promises are outgrown over the course of a life. So if we insist that our promises serve as absolutes, Whyte seems to say, we prevent growth and inhibit love.
I have broken more promises than I want to remember, usually in a moment of carelessness. I have also kept more promises than I want to remember out of fear or inertia, figuring it was easier to remain where I was, doing what I was already doing, in order to avoid antagonizing someone or just because changing my behavior to go outside the promise looked hard and risky. On those rare occasions I broke a promise intentionally, I did so because sticking with the promise seemed to deny a new energy, a creative possibility, that was too compelling to resist. I remember the precise moment in my marriage when I realized that keeping the promise of our wedding vows was going to bring both of us too much pain, far more pain than would come if I broke my promise to stay in that relationship forever.
While I will always hold myself to keeping the promises I make, I am trying to regard those promises in more flexible ways, no longer seeing them as absolutes but as products of living and changing relationships to people, to communities, to God, to the earth itself. Whyte seems wise to consider a promise as rooted in a particular season of life. Just as changing seasons of nature invite changes in how we go through our days, so do changing seasons in a life journey call for new promises—and the breaking of old promises that no longer support ongoing energy and growth. If a promise is made in love, then that same love will ultimately allow for the promise to be broken, tenderly, respectfully, with gratitude for what it made possible, in hope for what a new promise might bring.