My mother always taught me the value of honesty. I couldn’t have been older than 11 when my mother started teaching me about the value of honesty and about how important it is for a person to keep their promises.
She used to say, ‘Promettre c’est bourgeois. Tenir (ses promesses), c’est noble.‘ She meant to say that making a promise is something the bourgeoisie might do or that anybody can make a promise. Keeping one’s word showed whose character was noble. My mother is to this day clearly attached to the blue blood genes in our family. And while I agree with being honest and keeping one’s promise, I do not believe this to be the apanage of nobility.
I for one think that a promise is binding because it shows that person’s willingness to commit to a course of action, regardless of consequences. I believe that to give your word is as sacred an act as any religious commitment. I must admit that I share Dr. Stephen Maturin’s sentiments when it comes to promises:
“You see, for my part, I look upon a promise as binding.”
(Dr. Stephen Maturin arguing with his friend and Captain Aubrey of the Royal Navy)
Most of our wisdom comes from our parents. We are the repositories of their hopes and aspirations. Most of them also live vicariously through us, too afraid or too old (’tis the same thing, really) perhaps to risk it all again. So, in a sense we are like those old Swiss treasury certificates reaching maturity and redeemable after 60-70 years, which pay dividends long after the original underwriter purchased them.
We represent our parents’ promises to themselves. We carry both the new and the old world on our shoulders. It is through us that our parents mature and discover the possibilities that life had in store for them. It is us who must keep their promises, even when we do not fancy or care to do so.
I made a promise to my mother once. I promised her that I would always wear the gold cross she gave me when I was 11 years old. I also promised her that I would never denounce the Greek Orthodox faith of my ancestors, from my mother’s bloodline. But I also told her that I would not commit my children to paths, which may not sit well with their conscience. This I promised her most solemnly.
To this day, I have kept all my promises both to my mother and to myself. I do not see this as my breaking the chain of tradition. I have tried and continue to try to educate my daughter in all matters to the best of my ability. I want her to be able to gather all the information available to her and to make up her mind on her own, without having to commit to any idea or concept that may be foreign to her.
A promise can be a prison. And although the temptation is great to make ourselves into another’s jailer, we must never do so. Free will is paramount in an educated society. We have no right to impose our personal beliefs on another.
At the same time, we must not forget that old adage ‘Promettre c’est bourgeois. Tenir, c’est noble.’ And that is also true. After all, being noble is more of an adjective than it is a noun. It is not something one inherits along with a family name. It’s something that one chooses to be every day.
It is good to make promises, and it is truly noble to keep them. But we should not force people to compromise their conscience, by making promises, which limit their choices in perpetuity.