Commitment on a Coffee Cup
By Christopher Klein
Just across the street from North Park University, a university nestled calmly in a richly diverse Chicago neighborhood, there is a Starbucks. And in that Starbucks, as is the case in thousands of others, should you order a tall Pike Place in a Grande cup, the chances are that you might find some wisdom scrolled on the outside of that particular cup. As a few of my colleagues and friends from Calvin College and I sat in the basement of a residence hall at North Park and were reflecting together about our work in residence life, I slid the cylindrical cardboard sleeve down to reveal what I assumed would be yet another example of kitsch passed off as a piece of wisdom from an impersonal corporate monolith.
#76 reads this way:
The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating — in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life. — Anne Morriss
Maybe it was the coffee or the good conversation but this quote seemed to hit at the center of what student affairs folks like me are trying to work toward with college students. Underneath it all this quote seems to be suggesting that a key to developing one’s identity is commitments. And, to speak more boldly, it should be said that there is a deep connection between one’s commitments and one’s identity. For it is in the making of commitments that our identity is marked out. Commitments free us from the pressure at every moment to choose who we are. After all, I want students to be free; to be liberated. In their work, in their play, in their love, I want them to be liberated. But, if commitments are the way to liberation, how do we foster the importance of making and keeping commitments as sojourners in a cultural context that suggests liberation can be found elsewhere?
Maybe you know Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd—television doctors, lovers, and post-it note spouses on Grey’s Anatomy. In the midst of the chaos of their professional lives as doctors in the fictitious Seattle Grace Hospital, where their lives are shaped by always having to respond well to the trauma, emergency, and external demands of life, they found something worth holding onto. They found each other. They found something worth crafting a future around, something worth making a commitment to. But why did they do this? Wasn’t life busy and full enough without this? They, longing to be married, wrote vows on a Post-it note, in the locker room of the hospital, and they got married as best they could—in scrubs, at the hospital, just the two of them. Yet we ask again, why? The writers didn’t make a mistake by including it in the show—it’s there for a reason. And it wasn’t just for the sex, because that was there long before the idea of marriage emerged, nor was it for the social status or notoriety some seek in getting married. They wanted to know something they couldn’t have known without making the commitment and beginning to work out its implications. And, whether we want to admit it or not, this seemingly simple commitment made on Post-it notes between these television doctors allows them to know something deeper about God, His creation, and the mystery of how it is ordered. Commitments allow us to know things with a depth that only the risk of commitment making can allow for.
So what, if anything, changed because these two people said to each other that when tomorrow comes I will love you and care for you? By making a commitment on Post-it notes these two people silenced pieces of their internal longing for individualistic identity. Tomorrow will be different and it hasn’t even occurred but the Post-it provides our characters with knowledge about a piece of the future. The commitment made in love hoists the sail and drops the rudder—some of the choices for tomorrow have already been made—the voice of the internal critic is hushed a bit. I think we long for the same things for ourselves and for our students. We long for the chance to speak into and carve out a few inches of the future, so that we don’t have to sway back and forth as turbulently in the sea of life attempting to define who one is and what one has to do. Making commitments forms our identity.
We need commitments made with and to flesh and blood people to help steady the ship—to allow us a deeper glimpse into the wonder of God’s created world, to bring depth to our existence. Like Anne Morriss, we need freedom from our internal critic, “from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation.” And isn’t this what commitments are for—to give weight and depth to our lived experience in order to not be ruled by our appetites and their selfish whims, nor by the endless possibilities and expectations we are surrounded by. For the commitment is a jealous thing and the risky part of commitment-making is that to say “yes” to some commitments means saying “no” to others. This means there are parts of God’s world we will be saying “yes, I want to know more about that” and “no, I will not be learning more about that.” Commitments create freedom by limiting the seemingly unlimited choices we have at every moment. Commitments free one to “jump in” and engage life that is within the limits of the commitments. So no, we cannot have it all… but, what you can have in the midst of sacrifice and follow-through is freedom carved out of the unknown by the act of saying “yes” to particular things and to particular people.
But our times are complex and trying to figure out commitment making in our own lives, let alone helping to craft college learning opportunities for our students that are rooted in good commitments, is a difficult and risky endeavor. This is difficult because commitments require things from us. They require that we stop simply watching life and get into the thick of living. They require us to stake a claim in a future unknown. They require us to make sacrifices to our own individual freedoms. They require follow through. They provide answers to who we are and what we are to be doing.
Making commitments is not simply a formal verbal affair such as in a wedding ceremony—Post-it note or other. Commitment making takes place through a variety of forms and practices. In fact, imbedded in the context of higher education, in the spaces we create for our students, is a set of practices and rituals that speak directly to the commitments we are asking students to make - both institutionally as well as to the commitments we hope shape their lives present and future. We have institutional commitments that help to rule our individual and corporate appetites. We can assume that the liturgy (used here to refer to a collection of rites and rituals undergirding the principle that all facets of our lives are acts of worship of God) of student affairs and academic affairs is crafting habits and practices in our students lives (and if we are honest, in our very own lives) that are shaping how our students make and keep commitments. And, it these very practices which embody particular commitments of various sorts that shape who they are.
Stacy [not her real name] walks into my office. She wants to switch rooms. She doesn’t like her roommate. Why not? Stacy likes to be asleep at 11 p.m., lights out, no distractions. Her roommate Emily [not her real name either] likes to study in the room, rustling papers, with her desk light on well after 11 p.m. Stacy has had no direct conversation with Emily. There has been no “this is what I think I need to function well” conversation. But, there have been passive-aggressive comments, slammed doors, and purposefully loud complaints about the roommate which are intended for her overhearing. So what is happening here? As far as my conversations with these two women reveal there are no major issues in Stacy or Emily’s life that are the subtext to the frustration and discontent. Yet, as simple and seemingly insignificant as this issue seems, what is happening between these two women is of the utmost in importance. What is happening between these two women is about identity, who they are, and who they will become. It is also about sleep, peace, and flourishing, which means fundamentally that commitment making and keeping is connected to what it means to be human—our ability to function well in our own skin.
The education we help to facilitate for our students is helping them write a story. I long for that story to be coherent and not simply an experience of bouncing from one plot to the next. Without continuity, the students’ stories of their lives will remind us that they are not free from their internal critic which longs for a coherent identity. Commitment making and keeping is about identity making and keeping. For many of our students the residence hall and the college classroom are the places that offer new hope or affirmation for how commitment making and keeping can help them construct a coherent story of their lives. Hannah Arendt (1958), in her book The Human Condition, wrote:
Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities. (p. 237)
The question is not whether our students will have identities, but by what practices those identities will be formed. Stacy and Emily were friends from high school—friends who made commitments about a future they didn’t know. What they did not know when they made their commitment to each other was the risk they were taking; and, by taking the commitment seriously, the importance of what it says about them. It would be naïve for me to assume that making and keeping commitments would be easy for students. Their worlds are greatly shaped by the push and pull of external demands for who they are and how they relate to others. There is an expectation that our students can and should shape-shift to meet the needs of their favorite clothier, their computer manufacturer of choice, video game distributer; social network updates, parents, and faculty members. We are shaped by the liturgical practices of those who make “commitments” to us. To be shaped by the liturgies of the market place, the social network site, and the internet, in general, comes at a very high cost. The cost is great because the reciprocity is nil.
So, here we are in the residence hall room with two friends. And these two friends need more than a “try to work it out”, or “well, I think I have another room open on 1st floor.” These students need people in their lives who can help give shape to the options they have in a way that brings coherence. Students need folks who can share stories of life in the resistance of whim, and the internal critic. They need us to help them articulate the costs and potential freedom of making commitments and the implications for their identity.
Sunday reminded me of the importance and difficulty of inviting students to make and keep commitments. I took communion on Sunday, as I do every week. I passed the peace. I sought forgiveness for the ways my life works against God’s purposes; I received God’s pardon. I sang songs of praise and songs of redemption. I ended up doing a lot of the same things with a friend whom I had hurt a few days later. I hadn’t been honest with Eric, or at least honest in the ways I should have been. So, we had a conversation. I confessed the things that needed confessing. I sought forgiveness for the ways my actions did not follow God’s purposes. He forgave me. We “passed the peace.” We shared some root chips and aioli. It was risky for me to do such things—I had to be willing to sacrifice part of myself. However, with no risk there would be no celebration, no songs of praise and redemption; no root chips. Commitments I have made limited my choices in this situation, but it also opened up a depth and richness of what it means to live in God’s world that is missed when one is not freed by one’s commitments. As strange as it may sound, I know things now (like joy and depth of friendship) that without commitment I would never have had the opportunity to know.
Our commitments shape other commitments. To read The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) is to wander into an endless grey world with two travelers who journey down desolate roads toward a destination that will offer more color, life, and vibrancy than they’ve known. So these travelers, a father and young son, in the midst of trying to stay alive are faced with seemingly small, yet vital, decisions—decisions that define who they are in the midst of the lifeless world that surrounds them. Food and drink are scarce. And, during one particular moment while severe hunger and thirst gripped the man and his son, they find some nourishment. The father, wanting only to sustain the life of his son told the boy to take it all. The boy remembered the commitment his father had made to never leave him and refused his offer. He knew that his father could never keep his big commitment of never leaving him if he wasn’t able to keep the small commitments. And in this case, the small commitment was taking some of the nourishment that could have easily been only given to his son. Eat, drink, remember.
This was their liturgy of love; this was their liturgy of commitment making and keeping. These making and keeping of commitments offer to the commitment maker and keeper a lasting identity for a transient person. And, for the one to whom the commitment is kept, the rich opportunity of keeping life better, of creating new possibilities—and isn’t that was we want for our students; the rich opportunity of keeping life better and new possibilities.
Christopher Klein serves as a Residence Hall Director at Calvin College, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Arendt, Hannah. (1958). The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Berry, Wendell. (1994). Sex, economy, freedom, community. New York: Pantheon.
McCarthy, Cormac. (2006). The road. New York: Random House, Inc.
Rhimes, S. (Producer). (14 May 2009). Here’s to the future [Grey’s Anatomy]. Los Angeles: The Mark Gordon Company.
Smith, J.K. (2009). Desiring the kingdom: Worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.