A Life with Promise

“Keeping a promise, could be a, if not the defining act of moral maturity”

Californians only wear a suit if it is the swim variety, but I recently made an exception.

In suit and tie, I ran out the door to begin a week of business travel. I slid my wallet into my pants pocket and ran into two pieces of paper. Finding something in the pocket of rarely worn attire is a lot like Christmas if all the gifts were wadded up and looked like something discovered in a mummy’s tomb. I quickly unfolded the papers and found that each contained the thoughtful, playful, passionate words of two lovers. They were the vows of the bride and groom who I married the last time I wore that suit.

I texted the groom to ask if he wanted them back. He said “yes.” Smart man. Who says chivalries is dead?

For fear of losing them, I decided to carry the vows with me for the remainder of my business trip. Physically carrying the life long promises of two individuals was kinda spooking me. What if I lost them? Were they void? At one point I took them out of my pocket to make sure they were still the vows and not a couple of airport massage-chair receipts. Yup. Still with me. Still valid.

I don’t know why these pieces of paper felt so important to me, but it was if the spoken wedding day words or even their spirit didn’t matter. There was something important about the specificity of the written words, of the ink on paper, of the hands trembling as they held this specific paper that wedding day. Their promises mattered and the details of those promises oddly mattered to me.

I made a promise not too long ago. Standing in line at San Francisco’s Tartine bakery, after years of moving from Phoenix to Seattle to New York, my wife and I made a covenant to the city of San Francisco for five years (granted, I would make a promise to about anyone or anything while eating a morning bun). This was a big commitment for us. To that point we were wanderers and liked it that way. But we wanted something different, got specific (length of time, details of what we thought it meant to be committed to a place, etc) about the vow we were making, wrote it on a napkin, and ordered another slice of quiche.

Five years later with our promise now fulfilled, we drove by Tartine and my wife exclaimed, “we kept our promise. That was easy.”

It has been easy. So easy that I had forgotten that our termed commitment was coming to an end. Interestingly many of the vows that I keep are the ones that I forget making. The problem with that is that the vows I break are also the ones I forget making.

Pick up a newspaper or open Circa and you will see an abundance of ambiguous, vague, and empty promises. Brands promise “excellence”, leaders promise change, churches promise community, lovers promise forever. But what do these promises mean?

My understanding of a vow or a promise is that it reveals our intention to try to do something. It is not a guarantee for the future (for the future is not ours to control, nor do we know what the future us is going to desire), but rather a promise expresses our intentions to maintain certain activities or feelings into the future. Writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures this idea when talking about the vow of marriage says…

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

It feels backwards, but it makes intuitive sense to me. It is not love that keeps Taryn with me in sickness and health. My wife has seen my body do some nasty shit when I am sick. It wasn’t her romantic feelings toward me that kept us connected during those times, it was the promise of marriage!  It is not our opulence or SF’s ease of living that has led Taryn and I to buy instead of rent, stay in our neighborhood rather than bouncing around, and raise a child in a home without a yard. Rather, it was the promise we made that demands specific actions. Promises are not just thoughtful prose, but it is in fact our promises that create work for us to do.

This is why I feel the details are so important. If a promise is not a guaranteed future state but a hope or aspiration, if it is the promise that fuels our activity, then we need to be thoughtful about what we vow. Without the specifics of wedding vows couples may have divergent ideas of commitment. A company who does not define what “winning in the marketplace” means will lack clear priorities and employees will wander. A leader that promises change may paint a stunning vision with a broad brush, but without the details of that plan, the promise feels hallow to all who believed in it.

As a society we swear in Presidents, have wedding ceremonies, do public baptism and make pinky promises because we intuitively know that promises are an accelerant to our desired lives. For when we promise boldly, we sustain bold living.  I believe that some of us under promise because we believe life happens organically or by chance and do not want to impose structure on our unknown futures. I believe more of us ambigu-promise because we’d rather the comfort found in the illusion of a secure future then having to work harder, sacrifice more, and risk greater to live out the details of our promises.

But I have come to believe that the results you want – in love, work, or faith – are just one good detailed vow away.

Oh, and all of the really hard work that follows.

So promise to (really) stay at your job for another year.  Promise to finally finish redesigning the den. Promise to find a therapist. Promise to record the full album. Promise forever to your bestie. Promise to live simply.  Promise to attend church regularly. Promise to engage your neighbors. Promise to forgive. Promise to promise boldly.


Two 22 year old kids – spawn of republicans, church workers, Sun Devils – got married eight years ago today. I don’t remember exactly what Taryn and I’s vows said and at times I have lamented that we didn’t write them our selves. But we were 22. We didn’t know what we were doing.

I wish we had our vows written down. And I wish I had them in my pocket.


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