Forgiving broken promises: Why we must allow space for amends so the trust engine can keep turning

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An article about Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress may seem like an unlikely place to stumble upon a truth about the relationship between promises and forgiveness. However, while invoking philosopher Hannah Arendt, The Atlantic’s contributing writer Quina Jurecic made the following observation:

“The act of forgiving, in her view, is the necessary counterpart to the promises people make to one another–on which society is founded–because it allows the spontaneous possibility of moving beyond the pain of a broken promise. But it also means holding onto the knowledge that the promises were broken in the first place.”

The point she makes neatly intersects with poet and philosopher David Whyte’s description of forgiveness as “an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting”.

Very few corners of people’s experience escape the litter of broken promises. And when they happen, our outrage towards the promiser feels justified. However, holding onto it doesn’t provide a useful path, or allow for redemption. 

I’m one of the first to encourage people and organisations to make promises they can keep. The engine of trade relies on promises, on the belief people will do what they say. Yet we often don’t. So no wonder hurt feelings get channelled into outrage and the need to shame anyone who doesn’t meet the expectation.

In his book Contract as Promise, Professor Charles Fried notes “when people fail to reach agreement, or break their promises — there will usually be gains and losses to sort out”. And while he’s speaking in material terms, hurt feelings and the barrier they present, while less quantifiable, are part of the sorting.

Amid the litany of broken promises is there a better path? A way to move beyond the broken promise and into a place of forgiveness rather than shame. Contrary to the well-known saying, to forgive is not to forget. Instead, it carries the broken promise within and provides a path to redemption.

In practice that might start with a phone call rather than flame throwing on Facebook. A conversation about what happened instead of an argument about what didn’t. Some compassion for someone else’s right to have a bad day, that things aren’t always about us.

I know redemption is a weighty idea for what can often seem like trivial transgressions, but it provides a place from where both parties to the promise can move on. Of course, that path can’t only be cut from promisee’s forgiveness. I’m not absolving the promisers here. It must be accompanied by their acknowledgement.

In response to Michael Cohen’s testimony, chairman Elijah Cummings said: “You come saying I have made my mistakes, but now I want to change my life … And you know, if we … as a nation did not give people an opportunity after they’ve made mistakes to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well.”

Put in simpler terms, perhaps the path to fixing a broken promise begins with acknowledgement by the promiser and forgiveness by the promisee. We need to allow space for amends so the trust engine can keep turning.

See you next week.

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