Commitment out of fear is no accomplishment at all.
How many times has modern culture browbeaten the importance of commitment into you?
I used to think that commitment was the path less taken—now I see this was simply what the cultural narrative wanted me to think. Commitment has always been painted to me as the rarer way, the narrow path, the nobler path, the hard path—suggesting that sacrifice on the road of commitment is a given, but that commitment itself is its own reward.
Thanks to this social messaging, generations of individuals like myself have come to believe that commitment is somehow honorable—as if the very act of committing suggests character, integrity, and strength. I don’t know why I bought into this for long, or how society got it so very, very wrong.
Commitment is not noble.
Consider the dysfunctional marriage.
A couple is aware that they are not compatible—constant fights and friction within the home are more than sufficient evidence of this, as well as the daily, silent internal nagging within each individual that something is seriously amiss.
Nevertheless, both individuals in the marriage concoct reasons to stay. Some are conscious (“we’ll do it for the kids”), others are unconscious (unaddressed codependency issues), but above all is the ever-present pride of commitment.
Whether the couple eventually separates or not is immaterial to the example: in the interim, the children become collateral damage to their contentious relationship, developing a series of their own neuroses and traumas. The married partners’ mutual and individual growth is stunted as they continue to stagnate in the same repeated patterns, dramas, and disagreements. In effect, their adherence to a grossly over-glorified concept of commitment does nothing more than sow violence into the everyday experiences of everyone they know—not just themselves, but their children, coworkers, friends, and extended family. Perhaps this violence is subtle: slammed doors, the cold-shoulder, impatient conduct in the workplace, crippling anxiety. Perhaps this violence is more evident: substance abuse, physical abuse, the manifestation of anxiety-related tics (in either the children or themselves), etc.
And yet, suppose they make it to their 35th wedding anniversary, or even beyond! At a wedding, the DJ calls the longest-married couple onto the dance floor, and they receive thunderous applause from other guests. Why? Not because they are the happiest people in the room. Not in celebration of any particular manifestation of mental, physical, or spiritual health. Not because their children have thrived as a result of their union. Not because they have a loving glow about them, or radiate any sort of joyfulness, kindness, and generosity.
No, it’s because they’ve been married the most years of anyone in the room.
Somehow, society has conflated commitment with the ability to successfully overcome obstacles. It turns out that these are two very different things.
When commitment becomes the obstacle.
In our worship of commitment as an all-encompassing solution to every problem, society has overlooked the all-too-common scenario where commitment itself becomes the obstacle in our lives.
While many things in life can fall apart because someone was unwilling to commit, there are endless examples of instances where it is commitment that wrought grief.
The “I Could Have Been A Contender”
For every success story, there are a hundred-thousand stories of individuals who “coulda been a contender.” This is not because of their unwillingness to commit to the right thing, although society would have you think so—it’s because of their willingness to stay committed to the wrong thing.
So many of the incredibly talented individuals I know who look back on their lives and mourn their unused potential are individuals who were fantastic at commitment. In fact, without exception they are individuals who committed to a stable job, a relationship, and even a family life. They prided themselves on the adjectives one might use to describe them, such as reliable, steady, and…wait for it…committed.
The “I Never Loved Him”
There’s nothing quite like finding out that your grandmother didn’t love her husband, but there it is. Ouch!
Love and relationships are a tricky kettle of fish, with a consistent theme I’ve observed over the years that is both mysterious and deeply unsettling—and it’s far more common than you might expect. Oftentimes, the couple doesn’t love each other.
Our relationships are what make us who and what we are, and yet, thousands of people are willing to commit to people that they don’t love, and in some cases, don’t even like. The reasons behind this are too exhaustive to list, but count society’s emphasis on commitment as a virtue toward the top (followed by codependency and the fear of being alone).
The “Golden Handcuffs”
Not as sexy as furry handcuffs, but they’ll immobilize you all the same.
Many people (myself included) have made the decision to accept a full-time job/career that they have little to no emotional investment in because of a) the money, b) the benefits, and c) the fact that good jobs often feel scarce.
Before they know it, it’s been twenty years and they still haven’t written their magnum opus, started their business, or traveled the world as they initially planned. Why? Because too much of their energy is being spent in commitment…commitment to the wrong thing.
Why Commitment is the Problem
At first blush, it’s easy to pin down “lack of commitment” as the issue. We are, in fact, programmed to do this. We have been taught from an early age to become “little committers.” We commit to twelve years of education (right out of the gate) and practically every subsequent demand made by society is a given.
Career experimentation, returning to school multiple times, and moving through a series of relationships are all practices that are frowned upon by society. Perhaps this is because of early theological traditions, or because a general sense of well-being and happiness does not contribute to the consumeristic habits that facilitate a “booming economy.”
Either way, we are trained to commit.
The problem is, commitment takes a large sum of energy. It requires deliberate, sustained effort over time, and that is precisely how an individual becomes stuck in a committed “holding pattern” that prevents them from amassing the energy they need to break out of it.
It’s cute to tell someone that the reason their business isn’t getting off the ground is because they’re failing to commit 20 hours a week to making it so, and yet, this is often the advice prescribed for making a creative venture work.
“Just throw more time at the project!”
It looks great on paper, but it will never work in real life–probably because that individual is already committed to forty hours of work at a job they hate, the energy-depleting effects of which cannot be overstated. While some people may be able to source their reserves for additional energy, it’s simply not feasible for most, nor should it be.
Learning to Uncommit
Yes, this is a character that you’ve been told your whole life not to become:
How could you quit your relationship, your job, your lifestyle, your family, your religion, your business, your career, your fill-in-the-blank? What kind of monster does that make you?
It makes you a happy monster, and we need more happy monsters in this world.
If you find that you’re committed to something for the sake of commitment, this is your signal from the powers-that-be that it is time to free yourself from the empty, rote pattern of guilt-and-fear induced obligation. Not only is it okay to quit and uncommit, it is absolutely necessary if you are interested in truly cultivating a life that brings you joy.
If we become brutally honest with ourselves, the things that we’ve committed to for the sake of commitment are safety choices—they’re square in the comfort zone, and yet they bring us discomfort every day. They’re the things that keep us wondering “what if?” and considering how life could be if we were free of them. No partner, no job, nothing of any kind deserves to be your backup, your safety plan, your comfort zone—and truly, we make the world more bleak by staying in situations where HELL YES seems so awfully far away.
Do yourself the biggest favor you can—uncommit to the things you’ve been holding onto for no good reason, and start thinking about experimenting, dabbling, and running headlong after the things that make your heart sing. If you don’t know what those are, here’s a giant hint: they’re the opposite of what you’re doing now.
Contrary to what the world has told you all your life, it isn’t just the fact that you show up that matters. What really matters in life is the way you show up, and why—so if you don’t have an intrinsically meaningful reason behind your commitment right now, it’s time to reorient yourself to the sun and start growing again.
It’s never too late to begin.