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In Consideration of Commitments

I read everything David Brooks publishes.  I appreciate his way of seeing things and how he articulates his thoughts.  I use him as a backdrop for a number of these spiritual reflections because much of what he chooses to address is spiritual in nature.  Reading and thinking along with him helps me to understand the world and figure out what I want to do with it. 
   
Recently he had a piece entitled, “The Golden Age of Bailing.”  I was not sure what issue he was taking on in this one.  But as I got into the piece, I realized how much I wanted to get his analysis of this issue.  His first sentence was engaging, but I still did not know where he was going.  “It’s clear we’re living in a golden age of bailing.”  Soon it became clear Brooks was using the language of “bailing,” to describe what I might more typically describe as “commitment.”
   
His second paragraph is very clear and a graphic indictment of our contemporary culture.  It made me sit up and take notice.  For example, it cannot be more clear than when Brooks claims, “Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment…”  Then Brooks offers some detailed evidence for his claim.  Bailing is a defining act “because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, what my friend Hayley Darden calls the ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps — not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear.” 
   
That is a boatload of details to wail against bailing---or commitment, as I call it.  I am intrigued by Brooks’ describing the ambiguity of social relationships.  I think he is correct.  For example, I think of the utter ease folks talk about 500 Facebook friends.  I teach a class on spiritual friendship and know for certain if you use Aristotle’s definition of friendship or virtually anyone from the long theological and philosophical tradition, it simply is not possible to have 500 friends---or 50 for that matter.  You can have two or three deep and meaningful friends. 
   
Again, I think Brooks is absolutely right when he talks about fraying of commitments.  Another way of saying this is to describe many commitments as rather superficial, which makes them fragile.  They do not stand the test of time or the pressure of many situations.  Many commitments are not really commitments.  They are more like relationships of convenience.  When they are inconvenient, they are no longer useful.  And if they are not useful, why would you keep it?  These are not so much commitment as relationships of utility.
   
It is not fair to blame the smartphone and all its apps, but that offer possibilities never before seen.  I do think smartphones and all they provide are wonderful avenues to a world of superficiality.  They tempt us to live in temporary time.  We temporarily spend time as long as it is interesting or entertaining or it serves the purpose.  And then, we’re outta here!
   
Brooks’ analysis of why things are this way offer food for thought.  He states, “Bailing begins with a certain psychological malady, with a person who has an ephemeral enthusiasm for other people but a limited self-knowledge about his or her own future desires.”  His word, ephemeral, comes close to what I call commitment.  In fact, if we are ephemeral, it is probably impossible to make and keep commitments the way I understand them.  I also find it interesting that he ties this to our sense of our own future desires.  I think he is correct.
   
He makes me realize commitment is something we make in the present, but it has future implications.  If I make a commitment to you, you would rightly expect that commitment would still be in place tomorrow.  I don’t decide each morning whether I am going to re-up my commitments for the day.  In a sense a commitment is a promise.  And a promise is only worth something if it is kept.
   
Brooks finally gets to the connection of commitment and friends at the end of his piece.  He has a nice phrase that notes, “friendship is about being adhesive.”  That is a clever way of saying commitments should stick.  Commitments and friendships are sticky relationships.  I like that!  Whenever I think about friendships and commitments, I always recall the words of Jesus late in John’s Gospel.  I like it when he turns to his disciples that evening at the Last Supper and tells them the secret.
   
Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends…” (15:15)  Indeed for me, the whole understanding of Christian discipleship is a meditation on friendship.  And I know the classical languages tell me that our word, friend, is nothing more than a word for “love.”  All friends are people of love and in love.  It is not erotic, but neither should it be erratic.  And that is what bailing is: it is erratic love and that makes a lousy friendship and relationship.
   
People who bail simply cannot be counted on.  I am glad for David Brooks making me think about this again.  But finally, it is more than thinking and knowing.  Bailing is an action---and so is commitment.

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