Integrity and Promises


Those who have integrity, who do what they say they will do, said the sage, These are the people who can tell the future.

What does it mean to keep one’s word? The question is incomplete, because keeping one’s word is a symptom, even a lesser one, of a broader quality of integrity. The old man in the small fishing village who walks the same path every morning opens his shop and prepares for the business of the day. He does this, day after day, year after year, until a time comes and he is very old. On one day a storm strikes the village. The rain falls and the wind blows, threatening flood. The old man walks the path. He opens his shop. As on any other, he prepares for the business of that day.

By his actions over the many years, the man has created expectations others have of him, which is the same thing we all do, and in a much less powerful form, when we make a verbal promise. A telling difference from such a promise is that the man has also created expectations for, and a promise to, himself. Many times, when we fail to follow through with a verbal promise, we have indeed created the expectation for others to have of us, but we have utterly neglected the necessary and confirming element of creating expectations of ourself and our behavior. We give ourself a pass; we rationalize and recalibrate. We slide the scale of understanding in our favor, so that whatever we have done, however we have treated this social contract with others, we immediately forgive our own sins. And many times we think nothing of it, so thoroughly have we discarded our integrity in those instances.

Which casts light on a point: When we make a promise to others, we too often see things backward from how they truly are, because the promise we make is not a promise to them; it is instead a promise to ourselves. With our promise we have created a future moment in which we can shine, a moment to demonstrate to ourselves first, and to the world next, that we are worthy of our place in the tribe, that we can uphold our end of the broader and comprehensive bargain known as the social contract. That we speak the language and are the carrier of the flame of human worthiness, that we walk with the lion of truth at our side, and that we can be relied upon for strength during times when others are weak. This is the true nature of promises. This is the true reason that breaking promises is a tragic act – not that it is evil, but instead that each broken promise is an opportunity missed to display nobility of character for ourselves and for our tribe.

So as we make a promise, we draw up a very specific pact with ourselves. We have formed, in advance, a portion of our life path that we can cast our eyes upon almost literally, a portion of the path that with our mind’s eye and our self-image we can clearly see under our feet – the part of the path that leads irrevocably toward fulfillment of that promise. So in this very real way we have seen the future, because in the life of those with integrity, along with the making of a promise comes part and parcel the carrying out of the actions to fulfill it.

On the stormy day in the small fishing village, the old man stands minding his shop. No one walks by all morning as the storm blows and the rains fall. Early that afternoon there is a lull, and soon a lone villager appears down the street and approaches. The customer smiles at the shopkeeper, dips his head in greeting, and says I knew you would be here.