Does your promise have value?

I Promise
I Promise – An affirmation?

I wonder what it means to make a promise and if it has any value. I hear people making promises all the time, but I’m never sure how many of these promises are kept.


Now there’s a promise. In all traditions and religions and magistrates courts, couples give their solemn undertaking to stay together, essentially forever – ‘until death us do part’. In some religions, such a promise lasts even longer as it is believed that couples and families are re-united in heaven after death. Whether it is courtship, engagement, lobola or any other mechanism, the start of a new beginning ends with a promise. Despite this, the divorce statistics are frightening. In South Africa alone, four out of ten marriages end in divorce before the 10th marriage anniversary. I can’t work out if this is a version of that TV series Orange is the New Black or a solemn promise that has merely been redefined: ten years is the new forever. Marriage is no longer a promise to the death.

Pinky swear

Pinky swear promise
Photo by alise storsul on Unsplash

Children and teens make serious promises. They have a lot of fun with all sorts of trivialities, and sometimes the very serious things with which teenagers must deal. They practice the ‘pinky swear’. When they do, often sitting cross-legged on the bed or a couch facing each other and even in groups, they might giggle with excitement at their secret pact. What a fun and innocent way to make a promise. I have no statistics on what proportion of these pinky promises are kept, but I suspect that it is a much higher proportion than promises made by adults.

Piet Promises

Piet ‘Promises’ Koornhof

I recall a politician earning the moniker ‘Piet Promises’. This is similar to calling a very tall chap Shorty and a skinny guy Chubby. It was that long standing National Party apartheid era minister Piet Koornhof who apparently made many promises but kept none. His promises were so strong that he foreswore his long time allegiance to the National Party and the Afrikaner Broederbond, of which he was secretary, by joining first the United Democratic Movement and later, in 2001, the ANC. To be fair, Piet Promises broke a promise of loyalty to make true on a promise of love. Evidently, the breaking of one promise led to a life lived happily ever after until his death.

What I think about promises

I never make a promise. When someone asks me to do something, I adopt a different approach.

I first request more information about what it is they are asking of me so that I am able to judge whether or not I can help. If I am happy and able to help, I say ‘Okay, I will’. This is where the fun starts. They get all excited. Maybe they are relieved because they have asked other people who rejected their request. They jump up and down, wave their arms wildly and ask ‘You promise!?’ This is a combination of question and statement. They are asking if I do really promise in order to confirm that I will do what I undertook to do while simultaneously demanding that I give a promise in order to lock me in to my undertaking. My response has been, is now, and always will be ‘NO!’ This is when I see disappointment suffuse their countenance and sadness dull their eyes. Their shoulders drop, gaze droops and their smile fades. They want a promise and demand to know why I won’t provide them with one.

Promises have no degrees

They expect me to promise on my life or my mother’s life or the life of my child. Sure I can, but it makes no difference. It has no effect and is no guarantee that I will, in fact, keep that promise. Promises are like the term ‘unique’. There are no degrees. Promises cannot be carved in stone, set in concrete nor etched in eternity.

I never make a promise

I have yet to understand why I must say I promise. If I said that I would then I will. That should be more than enough. But most people have been disappointed many times by friends and business associates and suppliers and tradesmen so they are afraid of being disappointed again, especially by a friend. They expect that a promise will avoid disappointment. It doesn’t. A promise will double disappointment when it is not kept. It’s surely not reasonable to make a long-term promise when so many things can change and when there are always too many variables.

Never Promise
No necessity to promise

I do not want to cause disappointment.

If I make a promise at any time, what good can it do? Appease or satisfy someone momentarily? What if I break that promise? Are there even consequences?

The problem, as I live it, is that if I give a promise just once, it will cast doubt on everything I say I will do in the future UNLESS I append to it the affirmation that ‘I PROMISE’. So I don’t. Ever. I suspect that I am but one of a crazy tiny minority. If it is crazy, then I am glad I’m mad. My word is my word. It needn’t be followed with the words ‘I promise’.

Edited for me with great patience by Alexis Grewan who understands what I mean

Disclaimer: Yups. This is the thinking and experience of Peter Ucko. Not SAFREA or members. Check my SAFREA page here and my website Safrea Chronicle MediaHub home page

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


6 Responses

  1. I love your thought-provoking articles, Peter. And I agree about our word being our word. Tomorrow is my 25th wedding anniversary so I guess I am safely past the 10 year mark. 🙂

    1. Oh Wow, Carla. A Quarter of a Century. Cooooooowil. Have fun celebrating. Then have fun every day for the next quarter of a Century. Then remind me and I’ll tell you the same thing.

  2. There are so many cultural nuances that it is ambitious to consider that there might be a universal understanding of the term ‘promise.’ Also, there are different interpretations depending on one’s personality. Just thinking of the Enneagram, for example, which is a tool for understanding human personality, there are nine personality “Types: Peacemaker, perfectionist, caregiver, competitive achiever, intense creative, quiet specialist, loyal sceptic active controller. Each would have a different understanding of the term. Interpretations change as people evolve. Some promises that seemed terribly serious at the time, seem rather frivolous later. Many women have been bound to abusive pigs in marriage because of indoctrination by a patriarchal society that decides on the role and place of women from birth to death. I have met Catholic nuns and priests who were forced into the convent of priesthood because it was believed that the first girlchild and the first boychild had to be given. I had a school friend from such a family who became a nun and later committed suicide when she was still a young woman. An elderly Catholic nun who is a friend, now retired, was for years involved in the personal development of religious women. She told me once: “You can take a nun out of the convent but you can’t take the convent out of the nun. This is the same as promises. It is very difficult to undo a vow or promise, to dismantle them from the psyche, even if they become toxic, festering wounds. Promises should not bind one for life if they are damaging because some people feel unsettled by broken promises. Breaking a promise can be liberating and the only life-giving option!

  3. Interesting article – thanks Peter. I believe there is a place for covenants and vows. With day-to-day requests, my view is “let your yes be yes and your no be no”. There’s no need to add, “I promise”.

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