This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other. You must keep his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today, that you and your children after you may prosper, and that you may have long life on the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever.
Deuteronomy 4: 39-40
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?
Matthew 16: 25-6
When he was campaigning for President in 2000, George W. Bush issued a values critique of the Clinton administration by saying: “Our generation has a chance to reclaim some essential values, to show we have grown up before we grow old.” Politics aside, as a member of Bush’s generation I found myself pondering his words. Even now, having grown old, I can find myself often enough wondering about the degree to which I have “grown up” and how, it seems at times, that I never have.
What does it mean “to grow up”? Although it is spoken of by Bush as if it is a state that is achievable once and for all, the truth is that we never cease needing to grow up. Another way to say this, as Adrian van Kaam does, is that we are “always and everywhere in formation.” There are always persons, events, and things that will evoke our irreducible infantile residues. We come upon any number of moments in our lives when we do not feel up to the task at hand. In many ways, the measure of our maturity is how we deal with such moments.
If we live reactively, our first line of defense against the discomfort of being called to stretch beyond our current limitations is avoidance and flight. When we hit a wall, we shall be tempted to run back in the other direction and to contain life’s demands within the comfort of our own rigid security directives. When, for example, we experience a strong moment of conflict or an apparent impasse in a friendship, we might well abandon the relationship. Perhaps we shall do something on the surface to cover over the conflict, but deep within us we know “we are through” with any attempt to deepen our intimacy.
This tendency to hold on to our infantile reactions by means of avoidance and flight is the reason why commitment is necessary for human flourishing. Deuteronomy tells the people of Israel, and us, that we “must now know and fix in . . . [our] heart that the Lord is God . . . and that there is no other.” In Matthew, Jesus says that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The only way to life, says the scripture, is to forego autonomous and independent control and direction over our lives and find our life in relationship to another. It is to commit ourself from the point of commitment on to give form to our life not in isolation but always taking into account the life of the other. We do this because we have recognized that from here on the form our own life is to take is inextricably bound up with the formation of the other’s life.
We live in an age when life commitments have fallen on hard times. Our sense of life as process and change leads us to think that our commitments are partial, that they are a product of our current form of life and when that form changes so too must our commitments. This may well be true in the case of what are inherently partial or temporary commitments. The scripture we read today, however, reminds us that there are commitments to an other, or The Other, that of necessity transcend this temporality. These primary and central life commitments and the limits they impose on us are precisely what require us to give form to our lives honestly and realistically.
The realities and limits of the human condition mean that at some point in any concerted effort at love and work we shall come face to face with our own limitations; we shall hit a wall of what we take to be our willingness and capacity to carry on with the relationship or the task. If we appraise such a moment only from our own lights and abilities, we shall, in all likelihood, flee from the work or relationship to which we are being called and turn our attention to another that remains within our current competencies. This is the option to stay the same as we grow old. We seek novelty to distract us from the truth that inwardly we are stagnant and lifeless. We have chosen to live our lives in service to our bodily/emotional and functional needs and drives rather than in response to the restlessness and “longing for more” of our transcendent aspirations.
A very concrete exemplification of the place of commitment in our formation lies in the realm of interpersonal relationships. When we commit ourselves in friendship or marriage to another, we proclaim a fidelity to our participation in the life of each other that will transcend any change, or obstacle, or difficulty, or conflict that will arise. Inevitably our relationship with and to each other will encounter at some points the fears and limits of our inner capacities for love. When the presence of the life of the other makes demands on us that we seem unable or unwilling to fulfill, we shall feel powerful resentment and hatred of him or her. Our fantasy will be to be free of the other, to return to a state of tranquility and complaisance. At such a moment, it is only our commitment to the other that prods us to continue to work together at the formation of each of us, that we might transcend the current barriers, that this dark moment might become a way to more life and a deeper relationship.
This is an analogous experience to the moment in a relationship with God that John of the Cross calls “the dark night.”
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
For John, the way in which he is becoming joined ever more fully to the Beloved is by means of the “night that guided me.” Faith is the trust that the moment where we must face what seem like our own ultimate limitations and our destiny as eternal abandonment and loneliness is precisely the moment where we are being guided toward the communion and transformation that we seek. For this to occur, however, we must practice a faith in the One who seems so distant and even absent from us. We can enter and pass through the dark night only by means of our commitment to the Other. We learn in the dark night, in our moments of impasse, that love is not merely a feeling. It is a faithful and committed willing. The night is “more lovely than the dawn” because in it we realize that love is beyond any sense or felt experience which we have of it. It is also the faith we have in the other (Other) and the hope in which we rely on the power of that love to transform us and to bring us to fuller communion.
To give my word is to place a part of myself, or something that belongs to me, into another person’s keeping. It is to give the other person a claim over me, a claim to perform the action that I have committed myself to perform. When I give my word, I do not simply give it away. It is given, not as a gift (or paid, like a fine), but as a pledge. It still belongs to me, but now it is held by the one to whom I have yielded it. It claims my faithfulness, my constancy, not just because I have spoken it to myself, but also because it now calls to me from the other person who has received it. Belonging to the speaker, the word now calls from the one who has heard it and who holds it. What is mine becomes thine but it is also still mine. It is still mine, or it is still my own self, though I have entrusted it to another. That is why I am bound by it, bound to it, and bound to the other.
When I make a commitment, I send my word into another. When I make a commitment to another person, I dwell in the other by means of my word.
Margaret Farley, Personal Commitments, p.16