I Promise

Do you have any television pet peeves? Tropes that just especially get under your skin, or conventions that you absolutely cannot stand?

There’s something that I see constantly on television shows and in movies, and every time it happens I get mad. I complain to whoever I’m with, or if I’m alone I just make upset faces and shake my head at the screen.

What is this thing that angers me so much? Promises.

Not every promise. When a person makes a promise that they have both the ability and intention to keep and they do their best to follow through, I applaud this. But usually that isn’t the case. Usually “the promise” is a plot device meant to let you know that something bad is going to happen.

Examples? An adult promises they won’t let anything happen to a scared child. Instantly you know something bad is going to happen. Or a father promises his lonely child he’ll be home before a certain time. Obviously something’s going to happen to keep him at work, thus disappointing his offspring once again. Or maybe a soldier promises a distraught woman that he’ll save her husband and that everything will be all right.

The problem I have with these kind of assurances, especially the first and the last examples, is that they are illegitimate promises. You can’t promise that someone or something will be okay, or that you won’t let anything bad happen. Those circumstances are completely outside your control. It’s just something to say to make the worried character feel better in the meantime.

But long term, it breaks trust.

Ultimately, that’s why these promises make me angry. They aren’t limited to fiction. It’s not only in stories that people give their word regarding things they can’t deliver. There’s another word for promises you have no way to keep or no intention of keeping–lies. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help feeling that maybe the TV lies are partly to blame for the prevalence of real-world lies. Seeing people make empty promises so often can normalize it. It can be tempting in a moment of crisis to promise something will be okay, when in reality no one except God can truly control the outcome. It might seem like a harmless platitude–but when you’ve been given empty promises and hurtful lies many times, you start to understand how ultimately destructive this practice is.

That’s why almost every time I see someone in a movie make a promise, I cringe. It’s meant well, I know–but it’s building on the shaky foundation of fantasy, which can’t help but come tumbling down one day. And when it does, it always brings other destruction with it.

So when you write your stories, and when you say your words to others–beware that the statements you make are not only sounds. Let’s bring back the time when a man’s word was the most valuable thing he had–when our words were backed not just by feelings, but by actions.

4 thoughts on “I Promise

  1. This post resonates with me a lot. (Actually, reading over the backlog of posts, I’m amazed at how many of them really resonate with me.)

    To be honest, I have a hard time even using the word “promise;” my mom always stressed “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” But being sure that I follow through on every commitment I make–that’s tougher. And as easy as it is to just blame my memory, I can’t stand the feeling I get when I realize I haven’t followed through, even if it’s as “small” a thing as bringing a certain thing for a child the next time I see them. Because it’s not a small thing–it’s a matter of trust.

    I actually wrestled with this issue while working on one of my (still unfinished) story ideas. Had a boy who’d been through a lot of hurt–deaths of people he loved, neglect by people who should have cared–and who was just starting to realize that his new adoptive family might be different. There’s a key scene where he’s hurt and thinks he’s been left alone, then realizes that his older brother has come back to be with him, and it just about completely breaks down his last remaining doubts.

    In the aftermath of that scene, I really wanted the brother to promise him–something along the lines of “I’ll always be here for you” or “I’ll come whenever you need me.” But he couldn’t. Because he didn’t know the future, and there were a lot of factors outside of his control that might make it impossible. So he admitted that, even as he made a commitment to do everything in his power to be there for his brother. At the time, I was afraid it weakened the scene, but now I’m not so sure. Because at the end of the day, what we all need is solid trust based on loving honesty, not false hopes based on empty promises.

    1. So glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      Yes, my dad taught me the same thing about letting your yes be yes and your no be no–which means really, any time you say yes that’s a promise, too! Following through is hard for me, too, between memory and just the sheer amount of things I have to do. But I’m trying to do a lot better about that–to actually pray for someone when I say I will, and things like that.

      I love that! I think there can be a different kind of hope and beauty in someone who refrains from making false promises–there might be more disappointment now, but there’s more trust in the long run, which is priceless. I’ve experienced that in my life from both sides, and it’s the people whose word has real value who I know I can always turn to!

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