20091014-commitment

In a comment on my recent post about breaking up, someone asked if I’d write a follow-up about staying together. I’ve actually written about successful relationships before, based less on my own experience than on the work of relationship psychologists, so I’ll just refer you there if you’re looking for relationship advice. But thinking about what goes into a committed relationship got me thinking about the nature of commitment itself. What does it mean to be committed to something, whether to a person, a cause, a project, a government, a job, or an institution?

It’s funny how many of the words that we use to describe devotion are also used to describe insanity. The word “fan”, for instance, refers to someone who is a devoted admirer of an artist, musician, author, or other creator (or a piece of their work), but it comes from “fanatic”, a maniacal follower of some cause or leader. The guy in line at the Stephen King signing is a fan; the guy who follows him around from signing to signing claiming King killed John Lennon is a fanatic.

Likewise, we use the same word, “committed”, to describe someone’s devotion to a cause or person as we use to describe their incarceration in a mental institution. Is there a similarity? Well, to be committed means to pledge, bind, or oblige one’s self to something: a course of action, a system of beliefs, or indeed a medical treatment facility.

So, is being committed a sort of insanity? Well, no — but certainly there are some similarities between the kind of obsession that leads us to do horrible things to ourselves or others and the kind of obsession that leads us to greatness. We can look at someone like Steve Jobs and see that at work, the single-minded commitment to a vision of how the world should and could work, and the refusal to acknowledge other, “lesser” ways.

OK, enough prologue. What is commitment, then?

1. Commitment is passion.

Obsessive passion, maybe. Someone who is truly committed to something can’t not do it. You can’t live without accomplishing your cause or being with your significant other. Fulfilling that commitment gives you great pleasure — being with the person you love, pushing forward a project you believe in, creating a tiny pocket of betterness in the world, these are deeply satisfying to the person who is committed.

2. Commitment is action.

Actions speak louder than words, right? A person who is committed shows that commitment, over and over, in his or her actions. If your actions don’t match your commitment, you simply aren’t committed to it. You may have a belief, a hunch, a preference, a desire, but not a commitment.

3. Commitment is obligation.

What separates the truly committed from the rest of us is the way they embrace the crappiest parts of the job, setting their jaw and taking on the work that the rest of us wouldn’t dream of. It’s the parent scrubbing puke from the carpet at 4 in the morning, the doting spouse helping their aged partner on and off the toilet, the executive who flies halfway around the room to apologize in person for a badly flubbed marketing campaign, the firefighter who charges into a dangerous fire because he or she hears screaming, the soldier who holds his or her ground while the rest of company flees. You do these things not because they are fun or pleasurable in their own right, but because your commitment demands you do them.

4. Commitment is larger than the self.

Commitments are personal, but they’re also about relationships. The committed artist sacrifices everything to express his or her inner vision to the world. The committed lover cares first and foremost for the emotional and physical well-being of his or her partner. The committed performer takes the stage in the service of the audience. The committed activist creates a better world not for him- or herself but for the generations to come. True commitment embraces and engages the world.

5. Commitment is voluntary.

Commitment is obligation, yes, but it’s freely chosen obligation. Even the draftee chooses to be a hero in the heat of combat — or not to be. The environmentalist huddling shivering in a cold boat in arctic waters, protecting a pod of whales from a whaling ship, can take refuge in the fact that they chose to be there. The parent chooses to have and keep a child, no matter how accidental the pregnancy; the spouse chooses to stay in the marriage; the worker chooses to stay on the job.  It is that choice that makes it a commitment — without the choice it’s just slavery.

(Ironically, being committed to a mental institution is not voluntary. Oh well…)

When we feel forced into something, when we feel obligations hanging on us like an albatross, when our actions fail to match our beliefs — these are signs that we aren’t as committed as maybe we thought we were. Maybe not committed at all. Pay attention to those signs — it’s easy to convince ourselves of a commitment that isn’t really a commitment at all.

So, what did I miss? And what are you committed to? Let’s talk about commitment in the comments.

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