A few days ago I attended a women’s group focused on the theme of commitment. The word itself elicited various reactions, from excitement to a sense of burden or duty. One woman even referred to it as a curse. I smiled and nodded. Despite having written about this subject, hearing the word can still create a contraction in my sternum yet, at the same time, I don’t believe I am incapable of commitment. Perhaps it was a definitional matter, and a simple re-framing could make the word more accessible.
The word’s origins are somewhat benign. The Latin committere means “to unite, connect, combine; to bring together,” from com- “together” (see com-) + mittere “to put, send”. To unite, connect, combine has a softer dynamic quality to it, that of possibility. Who knows what will happen when different elements are brought together? Yet, over time, the word evolved. From Webster’s, its first definition is “to do; to effect or perpetrate; as, to commit murder.” No wonder it can have a somewhat negative connotation, if not an implication of finality, of doors slamming shut behind us. Next, “to give in trust; to put into custody; to consign or surrender for safekeeping.” And third: “to join or put together, for a contest,” which feels more dynamic, although this meaning is now obsolete. The fourth meaning,”to engage; to pledge, or to pledge by implication; to bind” seems to focus on the intention, or a declaration.
Over two hours, as a collective and in smaller groups, we continued to explore what commitment is and what, if anything, might get in the way of making commitments. The facilitators asked us to reflect on commitments we felt good about; what immediately arose for me was my commitment to my health that so far has involved changes in diet and lifestyle. It’s a commitment without an end date or a finished product, and doesn’t always lend itself to goals that can be discussed or evaluated. The expression of this commitment might look different from one day to the next, as health and well-being are not constant and requires continuous attention and refinements. That is when I realized that I’ve often associated commitment with a specific outcome, making agreements or showing up on time, rather than the process. For me, a person’s ability to honor an agreement or arrive on time helps create the trust required for a more amorphous commitment, to friendship, relationship, or doing business together. Yet another participant mentioned that she had no issue with global commitments, such as to her family, but felt more constrained when it came to making specific agreements or honoring punctuality. Commitment can look very different, depending on who is committing, and to what, and over what period. Some commitments might only reveal themselves over the course of a lifetime; indeed, we were asked to consider what commitments might already be at play in our lives without our consciously naming them. That made me wonder: is a conscious commitment more effective or desirable than one operating below the surface?
That depends. If the subliminal commitment is sabotaging a declared commitment, it helps to unmask it, to discover what is sabotaging or generating resistance to fulfilling the new intention. And because commitment to a particular activity can feel like a door shutting behind us, the exclusion of some possibilities, it often creates fear. What if, in the fulfillment of our commitment, we need to radically alter our way of life and divorce the stories we’ve told ourselves all our lives? That can feel like a tiny, or not so tiny, death. Glorious sounding commitments (devoting one’s life to an art form or spiritual practice) might come at a price even if they have the potential to offer tremendous rewards.
A way around the black-and-white nature of commitment as understood in our culture is to focus on the process, not the outcome, the how rather than the what. How are we when we are doing the thing that we say we are committed to? Are we relaxed yet focused or gritting our teeth and wishing it were over? Humble or arrogant? Are we, borrowing from Webster’s fourth definition, engaged (which I interpret as present and wholehearted), rather than dutiful, obedient or resentful?
Anything worth committing to, or pledging to, is going to elicit some form of resistance. Sometimes that resistance is so powerful that we back down, maybe for weeks, months or years at a time. Recommitting, then, is just as if not more important than the original commitment. In recommitting, we can focus more on the how of what we’re doing, to work with ourselves in a way that sustains us rather than creates a contraction, stress, burnout or boredom. So we return to the Latin definition, to unite, connect and combine. What do we need to bring together within ourselves to realize our conscious commitments? Mastering that is just as worthwhile as the commitments themselves.