But I have promises to keep

Photo by Morgan Jones on Unsplash

There are so many choices in life, so much to do. We can do anything, but we can’t do everything. If we don’t make decisions, others will make them for us. We’ll find ourselves not looking forward with nostalgia for the future, but looking backwards wondering what happened.

The only way to stop this is to intervene and make decisions. Choose. In the exquisite and lucid poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost feels the pull of one place, but chooses to keep the promises he’s already made. He has his quest. Whether it is gargantuan or quotidian we don’t know and nor does it matter. He’s made the choice and he stays with it, not distracted by the beauty or all the other possibilities because he has promises to keep.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

What are your promises? Some of us don’t have any promises to keep. For some, life has become so reactive to the next demand, and the next and the next that there is no sense of quest, no horizon of possibilities from which to choose and commit to. In some cases, this is because of appalling conditions, brutalising environments or the sheer necessity of basic survival. But for most people reading on Medium, that’s not the case. We do have choices and the time to make them is now.

love is keeping promises to others

Photo by Oleg Sergeichik on Unsplash

Loving someone is a signal that the other person can rely on your promises and commitments. Whether the other person is a close friend, your child or your partner, promises matter.

We all make mistakes. Sometimes we’ve half-committed to something without thinking it through or listening deeply. Sometimes life gets in the way, and usually the other person will understand and forgive, especially if letting them down isn’t a continual pattern.

But it’s all too easy to make promises that we know will never happen, simply because it feels more comfortable to acquiesce in the moment, even though this damages the love in the longer term.

  • If we make a promise just to fob-off a child, knowing we have no intention of following through, that’s passive aggression, not love.
  • If we make so many promises that we are bound to run out of time and resources, that’s self delusion, not love.
  • If we make promises out of fear of ever saying no, that’s insecurity, not love speaking.
  • If we make every promise as its asked (or demanded), that’s self-sacrifice (and a total lack of creativity and problem-solving) rather than a loving response.
  • If we make promises and then find we always have some outstanding and urgent reason to break it, love is being held hostage to a lack of accountability.

Every broken promise is a signal that something else was more important than that relationship. All of us fail sometimes, but promises and love go hand in hand.

You have to consider why you are making the promise — is it to

  • get someone to be quiet
  • appease
  • avoid conflict
  • self-sacrifice
  • or out of love?

integrity is keeping promises to yourself

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We’re not likely to be good at keeping promises to others as acts of love (as opposed to weapons of resentful obligation) if we don’t take ourselves seriously. As Welling says in Writing Wild:

We do ourselves and others no good if we allow energy drains within our systems. The body tells the truth … It’s our job to read the gauges: abdomen, heart and head.

When we keep promises to ourselves, we don’t only talk about dreams and pursuing a quest, we model how to live like this. It’s a gift to those in our lives as well as to ourselves.

A promise is a commitment that something will happen. If you keep promising yourself you will write that novel, but never start, how do you feel about yourself? If you keep promising you will exercise three times a week, but never do, what sort of self-image will you have?

Breaking promises to yourself is an internal signal that you are not the person you want to be; that you can’t trust yourself. Conversely, when you keep promises to yourself:

  • your thoughts, feelings and actions are coherent
  • your confidence grows

You don’t have to make promises so grand that you set yourself up for failure. And any promise can have as many stages as it needs. As Confucius puts it:

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop

But you do have to keep the promises you make to yourself. If someone else repeatedly lets you down, how do you view them? Why should it be any different if that person is yourself?

You want to write a poetry collection?

  • Promise yourself you will do it.
  • Then break the promise down into clear, achievable stages.
  • Block out the time as sacrosanct.
  • And do it.

discernment is knowing which promises to make and which to say no to

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

No-one can do everything. How do you decide what to promise, whether for others or yourself?

For a start, forget the endless ‘to-do’ lists. Life should be about passion and quests, not deadening and demotivating lists. When you:

  • take control of how you use time
  • think deeply about what is important in your life (what excites you and gives life meaning)
  • build your life on values rather than demands, ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’
  • fashion your environment to support not hinder your life

then you will know which promises are important to keep and what you should be saying no to.

love, integrity and discernment

Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

To make and keep promises we need love, integrity and discernment. Without these qualities we become reactive, self-sacrificing, resentful and untrustworthy. But when we act from love, integrity and discernment then our confidence, problem-solving and creativity escalate.

At the beginning of the year I wrote about ways to turn New Year resolutions into lasting action. We are currently in the season of Harvest — the old season of Lammas in the northern hemisphere. New Year seems like a long time ago. How many resolutions have persisted? How many are beginning to bear fruit?

These are not questions to beat yourself up with, but to reset your sense of promise. We can always start again now. The person you are tomorrow depends on how you act today.

A person of promise

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

People who are able to make promises from love and who have a strong sense of personal integrity are not are not gods among (wo)men, but those with intact senses of self and imagination.

We all inhabit stories, including the story of who we are. If we have a strong and imaginative self who inhabits the space between the possible and the actual, the dreamed and the lived, then we will make the right promises and keep them.

The signs that we are living in the wrong story, that imagination has failed us include:

  • Not valuing the self (an introverted failure of imagination can become depression)
  • Not valuing others (an outward failure of imagination)
  • Not being able to discern what promises to make an keep (the playing, imagining self cut off from the deepest creative core and spark of the self)

If these are persistent traits, it might be worth working with someone who can help get that alignment of self and imagination back to health, or it may be that taking time to think and journal will shake something loose.

To be a person of promise, you must nurture your imagination and yourself. Imagination allows us to fly, it ensures:

  • a sense of identity and renewed self image
  • autonomy within community
  • deeper understanding
  • listening
  • alternative possibilities
  • a sense of purpose and quest

Imagination helps us to become a different story.

Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.



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Jan Fortune

Jan Fortune


Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/