The pledge taken in marriage is one of the more visible statements of relationship commitment in western culture. Civic pledges, like oaths of offices and the Pledge of Allegiance, are similarly statements of our commitment. We have witnessed the recitation of these promises scores of times, perhaps thousands, by the time we are in high school, but when teaching about love at the university, I rarely come across more than a few students in a class who have ever once thought about what a pledge or commitment actually is. I explain commitments as decisions about the how and how long of relationships.
Here are some examples of commitment I share with my students. They are often surprised:
- I will greet you in public, but it is up to you to decide if you say how it is we know each other. (This an actual commitment I make. The rest of these are fictitious examples of commitments.)
- I will ignore you in public, but will work with you on this work project.
- We will stay together until the kids are out on their own.
- You’re dead to me.
- I will see this through until you are out of office.
- My wallet is on the dresser. Take what makes sense. I will see you in a week.
One or more of the students in my class will ask why I don’t include statements like “I will love you until the end of time” or “I will always be yours.” Somehow for these young adults my response is rarely satisfying. I answer that none of us will love anyone until the end of time because we will not be here at the end of time. It also remains unclear about what it means to be “mine” and specifically when is “always” officially over. If we mean we have decided to pledge sexual fidelity until we are no longer having sex, then we should just say that. It avoids lots of misunderstandings and some heartbreak, too.
Recently I have heard a few friends and colleagues comment that they will move to Canada if Donald Trump is elected. Though I understand these statements to be expressions of feeling instead of real commitments, I am struck by the limits to their pledge of allegiance. Are we committed to the republic or not? Is leaving congruent with our commitment, and why is leaving viewed as a more palatable alternative to actually working for an alternative candidate or party?
Similarly, how is it that those who take over and destroy public property in Oregon are considered heroes by some who also decry the actions of Black Lives Matter protesters who are unarmed and nonviolent? Bloggers are increasingly asking for whose flag and whose republic do we pledge allegiance. They want to know if some people are misguided when they follow rules that others seem to defy. I personally want to know what it means to be “under God.” Can we legitimately state we pledge allegiance and then sit out the vote because of challenges with child care or a preference for drinks after work? Is our abridgment of voter rights through limiting access and requiring IDs really congruent with the republic for which our flag stands?
In short, we are a nation kicking the tires on the car for which we are already making payments.
I raise all of these issues about our commitment to our nation for two reasons. The first is that civic commitment is a factor of our love of county. We must face that we pay little attention to our love of country and increasingly complain about it. We are responsible for creating the union that we govern through our representatives. The degree of our feelings of powerlessness to make change does not translate into a diminution of our responsibility. When we fawn over plutocrats, we must also acknowledge the cost of our behaviors in our national outcomes. Privatizing public utilities and education, for example, have not improved our lives, but they have feathered the nests of those to whom we have given our assets.
The second reason I raise the issue of our national commitment is that, absent the flowers and chocolates, our love of county can teach us about the commitments we make in our interpersonal love relationships. The two are analogous. Would we ever promote ourselves to a prospective spouse by describing ourselves as cheats or liars or just plain ignorant? But if we fail to pay our fare, shirk public service, or feign confusion over laws are we not cheats, liars, and ignorant? It is surprising that we trust each other as much as we do given our dubious civic records.
In a recent public radio interview, a representative of General Electric explained that it is not up to manufacturers to train workers. Manufacturing employees should come to them with two years of experience and an associates’ degree from a community college for which tax payers should pay. The representative went on to say that apprenticeships are costly and the expense cannot be carried by industry. I wondered to myself, “Who would want to marry you? Your vow would be to get your own and screw me. No thanks.”
One of my favorite wedding ceremonies is one I saw on TV from Liberia. In it, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf visits a village and performs a civil ceremony in which a half dozen couple are married simultaneously. Because the vows are civil and the pledge to one another is public, the couples all hold on to the fringe attached to their nation’s flag.
My absolute favorite statements of commitment, however, were between my late husband and me in our first years together. Paul was the author of them both. The first one was about four months into our dating. He said that he would not have sex with anyone else without me knowing about it ahead of time. I understand that this sounds really crass, but honestly, wouldn’t life go better for many people if they promised that instead of life-long sexual fidelity when they don’t know anything about life?
The second commitment happened a year or so later. He said, “If we move in together, I promise to work out whatever comes between us so that we can remain together until one of us dies.” When he moved in with me a few months later, I asked him if he knew what that meant. He said he would be pushing my wheelchair in 40 years. He might have had the details wrong, but his decision was clear.