Don’t depend on a promise

Thanks to marriage, politics and business, the legitimacy of the promise has taken a thorough beating.

Maureen Landsverk

Whether itâÄôs with a handshake or a ring, weâÄôve all done it: made a promise. When we were younger, we extended a pinky finger to link in a grand, sanctimonious gesture of veracity or cast up an âÄúI swearâÄù toward whatever omniscient deity we hold in highest esteem. As surely as weâÄôve all made promises, we all undoubtedly make ones we canâÄôt keep; even some which we have no intention of fulfilling. That said, what does a promise really mean, and how much weight does it carry in todayâÄôs world, if any? One pitfall of the promise is its lack of a track record. When the word is tacked onto every other sentence as an afterthought, why should we take it seriously? How do we know who means it? Despite a new body language segment on The OâÄôReilly Factor and shows like FoxâÄôs Lie to Me, we canâÄôt and we donâÄôt. Hopefully no one keeps records of how many people have gone back on their word in the past month, but there are other, more specified instances to illustrate the point âÄî a case study of the promise, if you will. First up: the marriage vow âÄî a classic glass-half-empty, half-full scenario. The most recent statistical analysis of American marriages reveals an estimated 50 percent now end in divorce. Optimism would tell us to focus on the half of our countryâÄôs marriages that do survive. However, when the wedding vow âÄî an oath which supposedly overshadows all others in sincerity and will âÄî is chalked up to a coin flip, it does not bode well for the everyday follow-through. If half of the âÄúI doâÄôsâÄù fall to ruin before the doerâÄôs eyes, can the shamble that is todayâÄôs âÄúpromiseâÄù ever be rectified? Another popular letdown, coincidentally, is the election promise. Sure, we can blame the failure to make good on all those pledges beginning with âÄúWhen IâÄôm presidentâĦâÄù on the lackluster action potential of modern politics or the stereotypical base nature of politicians. Call it a gimmick, call it a ploy, but these incessant oaths to cut taxes, incorporate more social programs and make a dent in the national deficit have made a broken record out of our most aspiring leaders. And when reality hits them, so too does a steadily-rising upsurge of broken promises. During his presidential campaign in 2000, George W. Bush promised not to use the U.S. military as a tool for nation building. While some argue that the Sept. 11 attacks justify his actions, Bush certainly didnâÄôt follow through on his pledge, which illustrates the irresponsibility of making campaign promises at all. Similarly, President Barack Obama vowed to withdraw every American troop from Iraq by March 31, 2009. One year into his presidency, he has yet to back his words with actions. Late last year, he announced a troop surge in Afghanistan which included promise to withdraw them beginning in July 2011. Conversely, with the guilt always assigned elsewhere, we may be missing the real fault to be found in ourselves and our willingness to believe every far-fetched expression of hope uttered from the lips of the powerful. Optimism is no crime. Without heightened expectations, no one would be held to their word at all, though this is admittedly not enough of a motivator to eradicate the continual disappointment of promises broken daily on the left, right and center. Trust is a key component to any worthwhile promise. Without it (and sometimes even with it), the likeliness of any type of security is miniscule, if not nonexistent. Also important is that we distribute our faith differently. Some put it in religious figures, others in best friends and still others in plants named Bruce. Electoral candidates win campaigns on the foundation of trust. Countries are built on the principles of truthful assurances, as are companies. Enron âÄî an American energy corporation âÄî filed for bankruptcy in October 2001, thereby breaking their contract with banks and consumers. The unspoken understanding of honesty was shattered in what was discovered to be one of the largest accounting frauds in American history. The public scandal resulted in a loss of $11 billion for shareholders. Internal promises were broken as well, as employees lost a total of $1 billion on their 401(k) plans. Enron may have been one of the first, but since AIG, Bernie Madoff and a deeply-humbled financial sector, it no longer seems the most relevant. With promises broken by those we depend on for our livelihood, those who run our country and those we love, where can we turn? Should we take each promise with a grain of salt? At the end of the day, it doesnâÄôt matter who we trust, how much validity we place on their word or what theyâÄôve done in the past, there simply is no guarantee of the future beyond that which one can guarantee oneself. As TIME magazine reports, âÄúCorporate promises are often not worth the paper theyâÄôre printed on,âÄù and the same can be said of the breath spent on many verbal promises. So have a backup plan and donâÄôt bank everything on a cheap guarantee, just in case it goes kaput. ItâÄôs not cynicism, itâÄôs realism. Perhaps promises are just watered-down excuses for what used to be an irrefutable guarantee, or perhaps, more likely, few have succeeded based primarily on the retractable contract of others. History has taught us how easy it is to have taken away what we once trusted was lasting. So, hold politicians, businesses and friends to their word and expect them to follow through, just donâÄôt depend on it. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]