Monday, 1 October 2012


What does commitment actually mean?

When people tell you they are “committed” we usually take it to mean they are serious, have given the matter holistic thought, and want to go with the project, plan, person or relationship to its fullest conclusion. We understand they care about the outcome, the progress, the feelings and needs of those involved, and are ready to stay focused, active and supportive.  

For ‘commitment’, as opposed to ‘interest’, is not a vague, wishy-washy thing.  It is a stake in the ground.  It is a moment to step up and declare who we are and what we want.  What we commit to, and how we deliver on it, is an expression of our taste, values and character.  It’s the thing people remember about us.

The antithesis of commitment is flirting.  It’s what we do in bar, at a party, when we’re getting to know someone and have no long term view.  It’s what we do with new hobbies, fashion, holiday romance, part-time study courses, temporary career changes, and seasonal home decoration.  We try things on for size.  We experiment.  We play.  But we are not committed.  We don’t care enough to sign on the dotted line.

Everyone knows that buying your first house, or starting your own business, is scary because you have to commit.  You have to sign on that bottom line.  And there is no turning back. You own it.  You must follow through.  Or pay the hefty price for not making it a success.

Politicians commit to values and actions on the campaign trail.  The public and media hold it over them if they fail to deliver.  Project managers, construction companies, theatre producers, airlines and any link you can think of in the commercial supply chain must deliver quality, on time and on budget, respecting their stakeholders and reporting to their audience and shareholders on developments; explaining if, when and why they can’t fulfil promises.  

That’s the nature of commitment.  There are consequences.

This interpretation of commitment, as a value, is deeply ground in our psyche.  So when and if someone or a set of circumstances require a deviation from commitment, from follow through, we expect an explanation.  We expect answers. 

Imagine if the fast bowler came out on the pitch and decided to slow it up, just for a change.  Imagine if the lead soprano in an Opera decided to mime instead of sing because her voice were a bit tired… expecting her tenor simply to cope with it, no questions asked.  Imagine if we boarded a flight from London to New York and the airline didn’t load the catering onto the plane so there was nothing to eat.  Imagine if a university lecturer couldn’t be bothered marking our assignments or keeping up with current research. Imagine if a doctor decided he wouldn’t sterilise his hands or wear a mask while operating because he’d arrived late for surgery and decided, off the cuff, it was acceptable to cut corners.  Understandably, there’d be riots, objections.  A fuss would be made. 

We don’t like it when people don’t take care.  We don’t like it when people break commitments without explaining themselves or stepping up to accept the consequences, however uncomfortable they may be.  This is particularly the case if we’ve made heavy investment in the commitment, perhaps to the point of side-lining our own needs.

In most cultures, the greatest commitment two people can make is to become engaged and marry.  This decision is a stake in the ground like no other – the ultimate commitment to tie your fate, future and happiness together.  It is a most joyous occasion, because it’s often the fulfilment of a long search, a long wait, for that right and loving partner.  Such a commitment occasions excitement and emotional intensity way beyond our average experiences, and it is all the more special because it is centred in love and trust.  The decision to marry is like a telescope to the future, the setting of a frame within which all other decisions, actions and paths will be chosen. 

It is the opposite of flirting, playing the field, or being selfish.  It is a stage of life where you willingly accept your individual and joint needs will sometimes be juggled and adapted for you are now a team.  You are rowing in the boat together.  You will support and love each other, changing responsibilities, finding patience, generosity and encouragement however deeply you may have to dig for it at times, because you have agreed to link your happiness, personal development, intimacy, faith and destiny together for the long term. 

It’s a big deal.  No wonder we ordinarily celebrate it.

So, I wonder, if a person makes such a commitment… and then, for whatever reason, change their mind… then don’t they owe the person to whom they’ve declared love and commitment, a holistic explanation?  Don’t they owe them some understanding and compassion around the fact that they’re likely to struggle for a while to accept the change?  Shouldn’t they respect that though their failure to follow through on their commitment may have its own logic or driver, if they were ever genuinely committed or sincere then they owe it to themselves, as much as the other person, to stay around and unravel the threads, emotional and psychological, which until that moment were tightly wound together? 

It is cowardly and cruel when someone sneaks out the back door after professing dedication and commitment. That’s why we hate affairs so much.  That’s why the media goes after ‘cover ups’.   That’s why we feel so betrayed when people are not honest.  It’s a matter of respect.  And good old-fashioned fair play. 

We’re all human of course.  We stuff up and do the wrong thing at times.  We can be a bit crazy when the pressure mounts.  And sometimes we just don’t cope well.  Our fears get the better of us.
Yet still, when codes of commitment and respect are broken, we hope that the person or company with whom we’ve been doing business, will acknowledge the loss and pain they’ve occasioned and try to find a way to make it up to us.
Not that you should hold your breath mind. The future has a way of taking care of itself.  But it’s always nice, however long it takes, to feel our investment was valued.