Vows: What Are We Holding Ourselves To?

Vows are spoken to be broken – Feelings are intense, words are trivial – Pleasures remain, so does the pain – Words are meaningless and forgettable” (Depeche Mode “Enjoy the Silence)

While reading Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, I came across a striking line. Referring to Corrigan, who joined a holy Catholic order and was serving the slums of New York, his brother says, “His vows still shackled him (McCann 59).” This was his explanation for behaviors that Corrigan seemed stuck in. Corrigan couldn’t live freely as he could never escape promises to obey and limit desire. I wonder how many of us live this way? What vows have we taken up because we felt them necessary or that we ought to behave in a certain way?

Look at the media for example. Politicians can’t speak their minds because of silent vows never to stray from party lines or slip up and swear because cursing is somehow indicative of poor governance. Teachers take a silent vow to never have a personal life that becomes known to parents or administrators as they might not curb their behavior at a G rating. Heaven forbid someone’s profile picture is drinking a beer in a bikini. “Someone call the producer of Wild on E!” From parenting to diets to marriage, life is full of vows. And these vows can act as traps, especially when reenforced by public consensus.

I am dumbfounded by how often others are held to ridiculous standards while we insist that it was not the demands of our desires but broken vows that caused the problem. Why are we surprised and offended to find an NFL linebacker intentionally hurt another player? Isn’t that the entire point of the tackling thing? Don’t we cheer them for hitting harder? Aren’t the coaches purposely using strategies that involve hitting the quarterback early and often to “throw him off his game?”  The vow imposed on them seems to be that they knock the snot out of opponents every weekend but never say it was intentional. Somehow, this vow prohibits admitting they wanted to bludgeon another human being with their own body weight because that violates the vow of sportsmanship.

Somewhere along the line we agreed that others must uphold silly vows like not cursing on television, never telling a child that Santa isn’t real, or raising a thank you hand to other drivers for letting you get on the highway even though they have to unless they want us all to die in a fiery wreck. These all stem from problems with personal vows. When we feel constrained by our own vows, we have a tendency to push them on others. We don’t do this to make them miserable. We do it because we are. Making someone uphold publicly decided vows creates a psychological release. If we collectively agree to force them on others, then somehow we have psychologically validated our own restrictions. Made to be necessary burdens, these vows stop us from feeling so bad about feeling so bad. If we didn’t do this, and most importantly as a group, we might have to face the fact that maybe we are trapped. And if we are trapped by vows, the blame lies with us. Vows are burdens we choose to bear. The weight of vows is for those willing to carry it. If it’s too heavy, maybe you should reconsider why you decided to pick it up to begin with before you hand it to someone else.

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