Promises, Promises …

How to make good on all those good intentions

A while back I chatted with a woman at a school event, someone I'd crossed paths with for years and often thought I'd like to get to know better. As we ended our conversation, I said, "Let's get together for coffee as soon as I'm out from under the pile."

"I'd like that," she said.

Well, I've been out from under that particular pile for two years—but I've never called her.

Why is it so easy to toss off promises as lightly as we drop a tissue into a wastebasket? We say: "I'll write you"; "I'll call"; "Let's have lunch"; "I'll be sure to pray about that." Sometimes we deliver. Sometimes we don't.

Too often "I'll call you" really means "See you later." It's become a glib social shorthand everyone understands. We don't really intend to follow up; it's just that we're caught up in warm feelings and lively conversation at a party, a business function, or coffee hour after church, and commit to something that's weeks or months in the future. Then time passes and life gets in the way, and more time passes . …

As my friend Tess observes, "We live such pell-mell lives that by the time we've met all our immediate commitments with family, work, and our closest friends, these other promises disappear from our consciousness."

Does it really matter if you don't follow up on a casual commitment? On a scale of bad behavior, not phoning someone when you say you will seems like a minor, forgivable trespass. It isn't as if you're lying, cheating, or stealing. Failing to show up to help out at some event may inconvenience a few folks, but chances are, they have plenty of other willing hands. And that person you said you'd call probably isn't waiting by the phone twiddling her thumbs.

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