A lot of people talk about marriage these days. Of course this has always been more or less true; pairing up with a partner is basically, it seems to me, one of the few universal constants throughout history and culture. Even though every society has its own unique set of rites and rituals, just about all of them have decided that it is a tradition worth celebrating. That it’s a sacred enough act to require witnesses, ceremony, and even to get the law involved.
Something interesting about older societies is the emphasis they place on things like oaths, honor, and loyalty. It makes sense - in places that predate trustworthy governments and social contracts, personal honor is the best metric to know whether or not to trust someone. People were willing to swear oaths when they needed people to take their word seriously. And swearing oaths meant something too; this was something you’d stake your reputation and life on. Breaking an oath had serious spiritual consequences.
I think that oath swearing is a fascinating practice, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become far less common. Even in your own personal life. Swearing an oath to yourself, one that nobody but yourself knows about, can be remarkably valuable. It does raise some questions though. Like, why would you want to do such a thing?
I swore an oath to complete 1000 word vomits. Why would I do that? Why bind myself like that - take away my freedom to choose whether I want to continue or not? I could have easily decided to start this project, keep it going for as long as felt right, and then drop it once some time passes and more important things enter my life. I made a decision, at 23 years of age, that will determine how I spend hundreds of hours over the next 10 or more years of my life. If you get wiser as you age, if you’re able to make more informed choices as time passes, why would you ever swear to do anything in the future?
However, I believe that oaths and commitments are a good choice. They can grant you more flexibility, not less. By restricting what’s possible, they actually can enable much more than they prevent. I think this is a counterintuitive point, one that’s worth pondering.
There’s a natural progression you see in people’s life trajectories. It can be observed in companies as well. When young, the possibilities are unlimited. You have endless freedom! A startup can do in 2 weeks what might take Google months of internal review and usability testing. A child learns language like a sponge soaks up water. Later, older people and older companies are inhibited by their scale and experience. They sacrifice that freedom and nimbleness, but are able to accomplish far far greater things by virtue of sticking to one path and seeing where it takes them. Google might not be as nimble as some companies, but who else could have the ambition to start such crazy projects as driving a car down every street in the world, and who else would have the tenacity to actually succeed?
Oaths are shortcut to forming those paths.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, what I’m really talking is marriage. There are a few remnants of important oaths in modern society. New Year’s resolutions are one, although the fact that they’re mostly famous for not being followed really tells you all you need to know. Marriage, however, somehow holds on to its sanctity in a world where that word is slowly losing all meaning.
The crazy part is that a lot of people really mean it too. It’s true that some say a standard off the shelf generic collection of wedding vows, chosen to satisfy their parents or tradition. However there are also many who strike off on their own. They painstakingly decide their own vows, things that they are swearing to commit to for the rest of their lives. They put thought into them and really really mean them. Isn’t that unusual? That people not only accept the idea of oaths, of swearing to a person or ideal for the rest of their lives, but actively practice the idea on the most important day of their lives.
Isn’t it crazy! Think of all the years you have left. If your age is anything close to mine, you probably have a good 60 or so in the task. Almost 3 times as long as I’ve lived so far! And the idea of making an oath that I will make sure to follow for every single day of the rest of my life? Who among us knows themselves well enough to commit themselves like that? Who has the courage and the mental fortitude to make such an oath and know, deep down, that it will be followed? Imagine swearing that you’ll exercise every single day, not missing a single one, for the rest of your life. If that thought is difficult to bear, then surely swearing to love another should be taken just as seriously.
To be clear, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It certainly shouldn’t be done lightly, and maybe there are some people who end up married without thinking about the oaths they make, but overall it’s highly commendable. There are depths of your character, pieces of yourself that you can’t know without making such oaths. Not marriage specifically, but binding yourself to a life path requires deep knowledge of who you are and speaks to a strong and assured character.
I really do think that making oaths and keeping them is healthy for the soul. Every commitment makes you grow. Committing to a 4 year university degree, committing to a pet. By reducing your options and sticking to one path you’re forced to learn the meaning of responsibility. And what you gain by committing to an oath and persevering, those are things that are impossible to get by any other means. I swear oaths in my daily life and while some of them do weigh on me, I never regret the practice of swearing. Maybe it’s because I know who they will help me become.