Promise me you'll try

Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future

Posted Feb 19, 2011

"Don't promise me forever
Don't promise me the sun and sky
Don't pretend to know you'll never make me cry
Just hold me now
And promise me you'll try." Jennifer Lopez

"Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible." Hannah Arendt

"The President has kept all of the promises he intended to keep." Clinton's aide George Stephanopolous

A promise is a kind of declaration in which you say that you will do or refrain from doing something in the future. Can we predict the future?
Is it proper to make romantic promises? Can we promise to love each other for the rest of our life? Can we promise to be faithful?

Being human involves thinking and planning for the future, and it is proper for humans to make plans for the future and to express those plans to other people. But as the future does not merely depend upon us, a promise cannot definitely predict all future states of affairs. It cannot even predict our own actions since we cannot know what we will want to do and how we will feel in the future.

There are two crucial components in a promise: (a) the type of activity that the promise undertakes to do, and (b) the content of the promise.

When a promise is understood as a certainty and as a fully guaranteed commitment to act in a certain manner in the future, it is generally somewhat problematic since it assumes information about the future that cannot be verified at the present moment. A softer and more appropriate type of promise refers not to a fully committed action, but to a wish to do something or to try to do it. For example, it seems improper to promise your beloved to make her the happiest person in the world, as certain circumstances beyond your control, such as a fatal illness or an accident, might prevent her from enjoying such happiness. It is, however, proper to promise to try to do your best to make her as happy as you possibly can.

A promise expresses our intention at the moment it is given, and this is something that we can, and even should, say to our beloved. When someone says that he loves his partner so much and intends to take care of her for the rest of his life, he expresses his genuine attitude and it is appropriate for him to do so. Here, a promise is not meaningless. In this sense, Mark Twain was right to claim that "Better a broken promise than none at all." A broken promise at least expresses a good intention to try to achieve what was promised.

It is more difficult to promise to love each other till death do us part. Love is not in our full control; we cannot always control our love. Love is a complex experience that can change. We can nevertheless say that we promise to do our best to provide the optimal circumstances for this love to last for a long time. We can also add that in light of our current profound love, this promise is likely to be fulfilled.

Promises express reality, but not necessarily that of the future; rather, they emerge from the reality of the present, and the wish to have the promise fulfilled in the future is added. Since people always look to the future (maybe even more than they look to the past or the present), it is proper for us to make such promises.

Is it proper to ask the beloved to make various promises to me?
In principle, yes, as long as the promise is understood in its soft form as a sincere intention to try to do or to maintain something. Revealing our emotions and intentions to each other is quite appropriate. It is proper for you to ask me whether I love you in the sense that at this moment, I want to be with you for the rest of my life; it is proper for me to reveal that I do not want to be with you just for a short time or for merely sexual purposes. It is proper for the lover to know whether her beloved intends to be loyal to her.

If a promise is all about revealing our intention to try to do something, in many cases it is appropriate to reveal this intention to people who may be affected by the implementation of the intention. Nevertheless, the issue of privacy is of value as well, and accordingly we are not obliged to describe all our intentions and to reveal them to everyone.

To sum up, although many people would agree (with Napoleon Bonaparte) that the best way to keep one's promise is not to give it, promises have a useful function in human life in general and in the romantic realm in particular. However, their usefulness typically lies in that they express our intentions to try to do certain activities or maintain certain feelings in the future, rather than when they seek to describe a fully determined future.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that you cannot promise me a rose garden, as you hate flowers, but can you promise to remember my birthday at least once every three or four years?"