Broken promises are serious business. Every parent has heard the familiar childhood lament, "But you promised!" More often than not, the scene is highly emotional with bitter tears and anguish that rips your heart out. Sometimes there is blazing anger or hostility. All parents who have experienced such scenes mentally kick themselves for having created impossible expectations.
Thankfully, relationships don’t require perfection, but they do have to be based upon honesty and trust. There is a limit to the broken promises a relationship can absorb. Since we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness, there is no better time to model humility and penitence than in sincerely asking forgiveness when we mess up on something we promised and didn’t deliver.
If promises are often broken, however, the child’s protest is likely to be accompanied by an air of caustic resignation that implies, "I can’t believe you; you never come through." When an outsider observes such attitudes in children, it is distressing and sad because, in such circumstances, the shameful history behind the development of those attitudes is obvious.
Such situations outrage fair-minded people. They offend our sense of justice and our belief that all children are entitled to consistency and honesty from those entrusted with their care.
Whatever the circumstances, the standard parental reply usually begins, "Yes, but . . .," as the parent tries to explain to the aggrieved child — frequently justifiably — that something unexpected intervened that was beyond her control. But it better be the truth! Kids develop a special ability for detecting lies not long after they learn to yell "No" and "Mine." Even if we manage to fool them, something in us, something at the core of our being, is damaged.
Lies do that, you know. Like other forms of injustice, lies consume innocence.
Fidelity, along with its antonym infidelity, is an old-fashioned word. In this era of "me-first" individualism, the significance of fidelity is often minimized. But the realities behind fidelity are integral to our interactions — our negative responses to a broken promise or other violations of trust are as innate and reflexive as blinking the rain out of our eyes. No one has to teach us to be upset or offended when someone "lets us down."
Fidelity also counts within our own selves. Break a promise you make to yourself and the damage is as real as when you renege on a commitment to a loved one.
Christ’s second great commandment is to "love your neighbor as yourselves." On the surface, the commandment seems obvious — and easy to fulfill. The truth is that it is remarkably easy to break promises to ourselves. And, nothing is a surer road to self-hatred and loathing. Of course, there’s always rationalization — which most of us are very adept at — but a steady diet of rationalization compounds the damage to our self-respect. Experience soon teaches us that there are good reasons not to want neighbors who don’t love and respect themselves or who don’t keep their word.
We all have an innate desire for love, but love without fidelity is meaningless. No one has to teach us this truth; we know it intuitively and it figures in our decisions as to whom we want to know and be known by, in every sense of the word.
What has happened in the last 40 or 50 years to our regard for fidelity and honor? Why have these virtues become so neglected when the betrayal of trust is such a devastating injury?
In part, fidelity has been displaced by phony lip service about being nonjudgmental. Why has this latter virtue — which so many people talk about but few actually practice — become so elevated? Perhaps because not being judgmental seems, on the surface, to be so much less difficult than it actually is; on the other hand, it doesn’t take long to learn that keeping your promises is sometimes going to be an expensive, thankless proposition.
Call it Gresham’s Law of Virtues: pick the virtue that costs you the least.
Sometimes, being nonjudgmental is a rather dignified way of saying, "Hands off. Mind your own business. I’ll live my life the way I please, thank you very much." More often, it is simply a dodge, a means of rejecting the constraint of moral boundaries.
In recent months, we have seen these principles played out in popular culture by movie star Tom Cruise.
Cruise put aside the vows he made to Nicole Kidman, divorced her just as he did his first wife and, after a couple of high-profile affairs, took up with a much younger (perhaps more malleable) woman who is not much more than a girl. He’s in love, you understand, and he went on television to jump up and down — telling Oprah and the whole world how deliriously happy this new love has made him. But . . . despite getting Katie Holmes pregnant, he simply couldn’t find the time in his busy, busy, oh-so-very-busy schedule to marry her before their daughter, Suri, arrived.
Of course the public is supposed to join Katie in making allowances for him because he is a celebrity and because he’s rich, famous and charming (at least in the eyes of his fans). Also, there’s his recent revelation that he was abused as a child. Still: Can someone explain to me why this young woman should take Cruise at his word that he loves her? Because she’s pretty? Well, Nicole Kidman wasn’t exactly run-of-the-mill. Why should Katie expect that he will be true to her when at least three previous, beautiful women couldn’t count on his promises? Besides, Katie won’t be pretty forever.
Oh sure, even if they, as the saying goes, "grow apart," there’ll likely be more than enough money to pay the bills, assuming Cruise has a decent investment advisor. But ask most kids if the money is what’s really most important to them. Those children who’ve been down this road tell a bitter story about how it feels when mom and dad don’t stay together and in love.
At any rate, all the publicity — either because the wedding makes a huge splash, or not — might help Katie’s career. Careers are important, you know. Maybe Mission Impossible III will shore up Tom’s career. Its opening box-office receipts, however, indicate he may be past his peak. Their child, Suri . . . who can say? Maybe she will, and maybe she won’t, have to adjust — like the star’s other two kids and the millions of other children whose world gets ripped apart when their folks trade down from "’til death do us part" to merely "as long as love shall last."
Without fidelity, life can have an awful lot of "maybes."
Please spare me the threadbare cliché about "how resilient kids are." Sure, wounds do heal . . . but they can leave really ugly scars — some that disfigure and impair — and they tend to last a lifetime. Kids really do have this huge need for unconditional love from the kind of parents who keep their promises to each other and to their children.
And, fidelity? Isn’t that the name of some bank or insurance company?