Gabriel Marcel once described saying, “I love you” as an equivalent of saying, “You will never die.” The act of loving thus reveals itself to be something alive both in the present and in the future; it is both an immediate act and a promise.
The promises in our lives radically affect how we live in the here and now. Our beliefs regarding what will happen in the future provide the foundation for our feelings, our thoughts and our actions in the present.
The question then arises, what are the promises in your life?
Let us, then, take a look at 5 types of promises that we discover in our lives and see what kind of relationships they imply.
The Promise of an Employer
Provide me the results that I want, and I promise you financial security and a place in society.
What does it offer us? An employer offers an environment, a workplace to call your own, a group of people with whom you can interact, sharing a common goal and a common way of going about things.
How does this change our lives? When we have a job, we feel secure of ourselves and who we are in front of others. We believe it to be safe to invest, to take out a loan, to buy a house, to plan our children’s future. Our employer’s promise allows us to feel useful to society and we are proud to be able to present ourselves before our families when we have a good job.
Nevertheless, this promise is an extremely conditional one. One must follow a social code: “Please,” “Thank you”, “Excuse me.” Being authentically oneself can often complicate or put your job in danger. Mistakes are not taken lightly. Put succinctly, when you fail to make ends meet, when your capacity to function ceases to exist, so does the promise. The necessity of a legal contract is an eloquent expression of the fragility such a relation. If I base my life on this promise, I am constructing my life, my happiness on a very fragile promise.
The Promise of a Friend
Offer me good company and I promise you fun and consolation.
What does it offer us? A friend not only offers a physical environment but an interior one as well. No matter where we are, with him or her we feel in some way “at home,” comfortable with being ourselves. There is a certainly a social code, but it is one that we form together by weaving together our shared experiences: all of those inside jokes, for example, that only we understand.
How does this change our lives? This promise offers us a deeper level of security. With this promise, we feel free to take risks. In his or her presence, we am not so worried about saying the correct thing, in fact it is usually with our friends that we are able to share those thoughts that others probably wouldn’t understand or accept. When things at work go wrong or perhaps when you fall sick or go through a rough patch, your friend is there to console you, to remind you that your relationship is based on something deeper than anything guaranteed by a contract.
Nevertheless, this promise too is a conditioned one. Break the code that we have formed, change our lifestyle, our way of seeing the world, our dreams and we might discover that the bond that tied us together begins to wear thin. At the end of high school, I began to take my faith more and more seriously while my friends were choosing a very different path. I felt that my accompanying them any further would only do me harm and little by little I decided to distance myself.
Mistakes may be forgiven, but direct insults may not be. A friend may accompany you through thick and thin, but if those thin moments go on for a certain amount of time, you may discover that friend draws further and further away.
There is no contract but there is a voluntary decision that sustains all friendships. Like all of our willful decisions, this promise, too, may fail.
The Promise of a Spouse
Love me and I promise you that we will become one flesh.
What does it offer us? The environment that the spouse offers goes far beyond a simply physical or interior space. The spouse invites the other to become home in their very selves: in their lives, in their body, in their heart. While they are certainly bound by a willful decision, in the case of marriage we discover a non-willful element as well: each discovers a sort of pull, something deeper that invites them to let themselves be taken away by the other. “I not only choose you, but I was born to be with you,” says the lover.
How does this change our lives? The security discovered in such relationship makes one not only secure of oneself but also “completed” by the other person. we feel complete not only because we are lacking someone in our lives, but also because it is that someone that teaches us how to love ourselves. The idea of “self-help” can be very misleading: only thanks to the loving gaze of another do we learn to look upon our own selves in the same way. It is thanks to that loving gaze that I discover my own beauty. It is thanks to that kiss that I discover the value of my own body. It is thanks to that constant recognition that I discover myself to be truly unique, not so much for my spectacular talents or what not, but because of the recognition of my spouse.
Many things could be said regarding how our daily life changes thanks to this relationship. Here are a few things that come to mind: one discovers the support and courage to be and pursue one’s own identity, one’s own dreams, ideas, projects. How many lives have been changed by that simple phrase, “Go for it; I am behind you.” Difficult moments can be more easily endured. One no longer feels the need so much to “prove oneself”, rather to simply “be oneself”. One’s daily activities because less self-centered, not due to some lofty ethical ideal, rather because of love and the joy found in thinking of and acting for the loved one.
Nevertheless, unfortunately, this promise too is a conditioned one. Mistakes are accepted, insults are forgiven, years of difficulty and sickness may be endured but betrayal may not be. It isn’t rare that many couples feel as though they had spent a few years wandering around in the desert, struggling to perceive that promise of love in their lives. Divorce and separation are a sad reality in our culture.
Having become one flesh, the bond that children form between two parents is stronger than most; yet experiences teaches us that it too is fragile.
The Promise of a Parent
I love you because you are my son.
What does it offer? Here we reach a level of love that is truly unique. A parent not only offers a home, the very experience of “home” takes form in the mother’s loving embrace. Perhaps no greater intimacy exists than those 9 months in which the baby literally lives in and off the mother’s body. The mother and father may have chosen to have a child, but once born, it is their child, their flesh, their son, their daughter. The love with which they love themselves rebounds immediately upon their children. The parents might have chosen to have a child, but nothing can change the fact that that child is forever theirs. Absolutely nothing can change that fact. The distinction “you and I” is almost blurred by this parental love that says, “You are always my son/daughter, and I am always your father/mother.”
How does this change our lives? Especially when we are kids, the parent’s promise is literally a life or death promise. For the first 10-15 years of a life, we are constantly dependent on them for even the most basic necessities. So present is this promise that we tend to get used to it. When we call, we know they will answer. When we need lunch money, we trust that they will give it to us. When we fall, we trust they will pick us up. When we fail, we trust they will embrace us. When we run away and hide, we trust that they will come and find us.
The dramatic effect that this promise has on our daily lives is hard to grasp. Few of us would have ever made that first jump into the pool if dad wasn’t there waiting. Few of us would have persevered in the school project if mom wasn’t there to reassure us. Few of us would have tried those foods that seemed so disgusting or those summer camps that seemed so intimidating. The amount of decisions that we took thanks to our trust in their promise is countless. On the other hand, reflect a moment on the daily experience of an orphan: the daily experience of insecurity, of sadness, of loneliness and the difficulty to dream and trust in a positive future leaves little doubt regarding the importance of this promise for how we live now.
In this love, mistakes are accepted constantly, insults are received with an almost infinite patience, even betrayal is forgiven. No matter what happens, if there is anyone in this world that will take me in, it is my mother and father. This is a truly unconditional love or at least very close to it.
Albeit unconditional, a parent’s promise is nevertheless finite. One day our parents pass away. That loving embrace that endures and sustains us throughout our time here on Earth lives on in our hearts, but nothing more. Our father may save us, pick us up after we fall, time and time again, but one day we will fall and his arms will no longer be there to save us.
Perhaps the most similar to God’s promise, the promise of a parent is truly something to marvel at. Still, is it enough? Is it solid enough to build my entire life upon?
The Promise of God
I love you because you are my son… forever.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer 1:5). Such is the love of God, that Paul invites us to pray for the capacity to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of God (Eph 3:18). And Christ finishes his final moments with the disciples saying, “I am with you always” (Mat 28:20).
Here we discover a truly unconditional love. Our very existence, our very capacity to say, “I” is nothing more than a gift given by this mysterious love. Mistakes are most certainly accepted, insults are received, betrayal is forgiven (cfr. Lk 15). Yet God not only accepts and forgives – even in the worst of cases – he always responds with a superabundant form of love. He responds with nothing less than the Cross.
While superior, this promise in no way cancels out the other promises. On the contrary, it is – or should be – their foundation. How we respond to this promise determines our experience of all the other promise in our lives, especially the promises that we ourselves make towards others.
It changes our way of looking at reality. Those who have discovered this promise are able to find an even deeper meaning in all the other promises. In my own life, the sickness of my father was very difficult for me to accept. I felt in one moment that that promise had failed me. Yet as I allowed God’s promise to illuminate my life, I was also able to see my father’s promise in a new light. It became evident that while the sickness was certainly challenging, it would not have the last word and I needn’t be so afraid. In praying together the Our Father, I am able to look at my father and say, “Dad, your promise may seem to have been weakened by your sickness and one day you will pass away and no longer be there for me, but thanks to God’s promise, you will be my father forever.” With this, I was able to discover a deeper peace and a greater strength in accompanying my father along his path.
It changes how we feel. God’s promise offers us a unique emotional security. Assured of his loving gaze and his infinite mercy I no longer need to live in fear, fear of being abandoned, of being rejected, of being judged, etc. As I allow this gaze to penetrate my life, I discover a greater and greater freedom before what others think of me, what I believe they expect of me, what I fear that hate in me, etc. While we must certainly continue to strive to do what is right and good, our daily life is no longer tinged by those deep-rooted fears that we all experience. With this promise of love, we are able to live the “now” in a wholly different way.
It changes how we act. God’s promises allow us to keep our own promises, even in the most challenging moments. Even when we discover that our employer, our friend, our spouse, our parents have not kept their promise or fulfilled it in the way that we would like, the constant experience of God’s fidelity gives us the strength to keep our own promises. For example, for one who does not believe, the moment that their wife becomes sick or unable to keep her promise (at least according to what the husband expected), he will find himself very tempted to leave and seek another promise. If, however, one believes, one trusts that one day sickness and death will be conquered and that finite promise will be restored and lived out for eternity.