Reflection by Dean Peter Elliott

The Sacrament of the First Commitment
It was with more than passing interest that I read New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent column The Golden Age of Bailing ( about the phenomenon of ‘bailing’. By ‘bailing’ he’s referring to cancelling, or ‘bailing out’ of a commitment at the last minute. He writes, “Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, …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.”

Well maybe he overstates his case (!) but I think he’s identified something important that calls for some attention from many of us, myself included. Bailing seems more and more common these days. Too often some of us do this; and many of us know what it’s like to be ‘bailed’ on. Now of course there are some legitimate times with understandable reasons when a previously scheduled commitment just isn’t going to work — unexpected illnesses and other events that come up that make ‘bailing’ to be the only option. And it’s not always an unwelcome thing. Brooks writes, “And it’s true that sometimes bailing doesn’t hurt. I’m delighted half the time when people bail on me. They’ve just given me an unexpected block of free time.”

As someone who keeps a fairly busy schedule with many competing commitments, I have developed a personal rule that I seek to keep, and I’m able to keep it about 80% of the time: I’ve come to call it ‘the sacrament of the first commitment.’ What it means for me is this: if I make a commitment to be with someone, to have an appointment or a visit, once made, I hold it in my calendar and don’t cancel it, or ‘bail’ because something that I regard as more important or more interesting comes up. I use the term ‘sacrament’ because keeping commitments made for me a spiritual discipline consistent with the classic definition of the word sacrament, that is, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ The outward and visible sign is making a commitment; the inward and spiritual grace is honouring that commitment and the person I’ve made the commitment to by not letting something else take its place.

I’ve developed this practice in part to keep me sane. Adjudicating amongst many competing commitments takes too much energy, and shifting appointments in calendars becomes too complicated. Sometimes the first commitment I make is to myself — an evening at home, a morning in my study to write or read can be a ‘first’ commitment, and if I’m invited to do something in those times I honour the commitment I’ve made to rest or to study. I don’t need to explain what the commitment is when responding to an invitation, I just say, “I already have a commitment at that time.”
And of course sometimes there are legitimate reasons why a commitment made can’t be kept: but I have found as I keep those to a minimum, when occasionally I ‘bail’ people understand and are willing to reschedule.
Most of all I have found the sacrament of the first commitment to be a source of life giving energy. Rather than try to cram in too many things, or be always figuring out what is more important, the commitment to the first commitment makes life less stressful, and decision making easier.

Brooks article is a great springboard for reflection — take a moment to give it a read — I commend it to you! And consider what it might be like for you to adopt the sacrament of the first commitment.