“I have problems with commitment.”
It’s a line I often hear, and I’m beginning to think it could stand as a motto for my own generation — and every generation younger than mine.
Young people complain that they can’t find a spouse because everybody they meet is “allergic to commitment.”
And you can understand why, since their parents’ generation has not done a stellar job of living up to their commitments. Divorce is pandemic. And even employers and employees feel they owe zero loyalty to one another.
I wanted to study the problem, so I decided to begin by defining the term. And the problem, I think, was summed up in the two conflicting definitions I found.
What is commitment?
On the one hand, it’s “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.”
On the other hand, it’s “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.”
We’d like to be dedicated to a cause. We’d like to give our lives to something great. But we’re kind of afraid of signing up for anything that might restrict our unlimited freedom to do whatever we want.
When I was in college, I had very promising classmates who dropped out because they didn’t want to box themselves in. They said they were quitting school in order to preserve their freedom. Eventually they learned the hard way that their freedom was restricted anyway by necessity. They still needed to get a job, but they had fewer jobs available to them than they would have had as college graduates.
Because they had refused to commit to the degree program, they ended up with far fewer options. They boxed themselves into a much smaller container.
Commitment seems to limit our freedom in the near term. Yet it makes us far freer in the long term. People who spend two hours a day practicing piano have less time to watch TV or surf the web. But after a dozen years of practice they’ve gained the freedom to sight-read masterworks of music — or improvise melodies at will.
Who gets the better part of freedom? I’d say it’s the people who make commitments and stick to them.
Yet I know it’s hard for us to stick to the commitments we’ve made. The Gospels relate a curious series of interactions Jesus had with would-be disciples.
One guy said to the Lord: "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus replied: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus seems to suspect that they guy won’t make it beyond the first hardships.
Another guy wanted to follow Jesus, but only later, after he buried his father. We don’t know any more about the situation. Maybe his dad hadn’t even died yet. In any event, Jesus knew the man was just delaying. He said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Still another man said he’d follow Jesus, but only after he had a chance to say proper goodbyes to his friends.
These seem to be reasonable requests. But Jesus knew excuses when he saw them. He said: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
It’s not hard for us to talk ourselves out of commitments. It’s quite easy, in fact, to put off vocational discernment infinitely. We can always cook up convincing reasons for deferring a decision.
As we do this, we imagine that we really have greater freedom. But that’s not true. We’re actually wasting time. We’re missing out on the satisfactions that come only with sacrifice, only with commitment, only with love.
You know the old song: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” There’s a certain positive truth to that statement. When we give everything we have for the sake of love — when we make a commitment — we free ourselves from the most restrictive prison on earth: selfishness. We free ourselves from ourselves.
When we lay our lives down freely, for God, they can never be taken away from us.