Tinker Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail

Are commitments decisions?

As a kid, I figured that a young man became a writer by deciding to be one. I only needed to decide to start exercising, to start learning Japanese, to start reading the collected works of Shakespeare with enough sincere gusto that my goals would draw to me as if on the end of a string.

This is the classic problem of the New Year’s resolution: The clock strikes midnight. You imagine having someone to kiss. And you swear that next year you’ll only buy beer on social occasions.

But the thing is, the next morning when you awake with just enough time for that jog, you can also choose to read the article your boss sent last night.

And the next morning you awake late, so you reschedule your daily writing session for the evening, but in the evening you still have the choice whether to return a call from the friend you haven’t heard from in years.

When I started the Appalachian Trail, I decided that I wouldn’t waste money on restaurants and hotels along the five-month journey. I came for the wilderness and on a budget—why would I spend money on a mangy motel? And if I went off-trail to eat in restaurants all the time, why was I out there at all?

The resolution was easy at first, when my legs only carried me eight miles per day and when my tent and my ramen dinners were novelties. But soon enough my appetite climbed, my neck cramped from reading on my side (no room to sit up), and with more miles came sometimes two-to-five road crossings in a day, roads that offered short treks or hitches to small-town diners and beds.

I crossed the first road, said, “I haven’t earned it.” I paused at the second road and said, “not yet.” I stopped at the third road and checked my map and the hour.

Common advice for beginning writers or artists is to create space for your practice. Novelist Don Delillo said in a Paris Review interview that when younger he “hadn’t developed a sense of the level of dedication that’s necessary to do this kind of work.” In his words, “I worked haphazardly, sometimes late at night, sometimes in the afternoon. I spent too much time doing other things or nothing at all. On humid summer nights I tracked horseflies through the apartment and killed them—not for the meat but because they were driving me crazy with their buzzing.”

But why should it matter, really, whether you practice hodge-podge or periodically? Let’s say that a year ago you swore on your friend’s sickbed to become an author—really, how could a bit of humidity and horseflies ever contend?

As I’ve entered adulthood, I’ve come to see the horseflies as more and more significant. When I arrived at a crossroads on the trail, I arrived at another decision—the decision whether to honor my commitment. But if a commitment must be honored with decisions, sometimes swarms of decisions, what really was so momentous about that first commitment?

A commitment is never broken on the first decision. The question is, which decision will be the last?

Consider how you’d been a faithful vegetarian, but while traveling a poor stranger treated you to a warm meal, and at the last moment you noticed the meat in the filling. Unable to disappoint this stranger’s pride, you partook. What do you think—was a commitment broken? With the next meal, did you make the first decision of a new commitment, or did you make the umpteenth decision of an old?

A commitment certainly isn’t nothing. That moment when you seal a promise—to yourself or to someone else—has a weight to it. Sometimes that promise itself is the culmination of something, the end of an old life and the beginning of a new, a contract with enough investment to bring prostration and tears.

Imagine a man pledging to start again, that he’s changed, he’ll quit, he will, he’ll make good, and by God the man means it.

And perhaps after I resolved to study Japanese every day, even if I don’t truly study every day, I am more likely to study than without the resolution. Language study requires an awesome commitment. Language acquisition requires years, maybe decades, throughout which time people die and marry.

Say it takes me five years to learn Japanese. How many times will I have to decide to study Japanese? Let’s say once a day. That’s 1,825 decisions. To learn Japanese, I must decide not to do something else 1,825 times. Of course, these decisions aren’t so dramatic as whether to quit for good. These are the decisions whether to study or watch a film after an exhausting day. In other words, these aren’t commitments.

Perhaps a commitment is the decision about how to make future decisions. But I wonder, is a pre-decided decision still a decision? By the nature of a decision, I think it couldn’t be. A situation does not lose its vulnerability to a person’s will simply because the person said something like a vow. A vow’s very existence depends on its ability to be broken.

And so a commitment doesn’t decide the future’s decisions. Perhaps it decides something in the present. But what?

She swear’s to stop drinking more than two cups of coffee a day. The next morning, what’s changed? Her affinity for caffeine? Her enjoyment of joe? If anything, I guess there must be a change in the brain, in those sparks and juices of memory. And suddenly that memory of commitment must fend against all memories, perhaps against conflicting memories, such as her identification as the type of person who can’t hold commitments.

More succinctly then, a commitment is the decision to be a person who has committed. And thus every commitment is historical.

Perhaps it’s depressing to believe that commitments, vows, pacts, contracts, promises, and resolutions give us no magic power over our futures. But I believe the realization of our goals depends less on how we see ourselves and more on how we react to flies.

Comments 2

  • Comments:
    I like the beginning paragraph. The thought’s been on my mind these past few months. The thought of how do you become “someone”? Is it by a title granted and/or amount of time? I think you just dwell (mentally) and practice (behavior) enough to a point of demonstration: a situation where you can show skills/abilities associated with that role, and anyone watching has no hesitation to assume you are that “someone.” But I think the more traditional and appropriate way is through initiation, and recognition by the initiating group.

    In the last paragraph, when considering commitments, vows, etc, the notion of will can come into place. One’s will, or willpower is a top-down approach. It is an assertion of effort “over” something, some idea. A measure of one’s will could be correlated to how “committed” someone is. However, an easier approach is when the vow/pact etc, is pulling you in. When there is a greater power beyond you that drives your mind, emotions, and actions towards the promise. The only form of possible discrepancy is in the question, “how could this be any other way? My life exists because of this vow. It is part of my purpose for being alive.” If you commit whole-heartedly, and single-mindedly, there is no other alternative. A question is, do you want to live your life that way? Perhaps for many of us, we don’t. We might think of fanatics and zealots, and that can be rather scary stuff. Dangerous. However, powerful, and effective. Would you become obsessed to achieve a goal?

    • Enlightening comment 😀 Top-down vs bottom-up is a good way to view the problem at hand. Maybe another conclusion to what I wrote here is that decisions are the top-down parts, the momentary assertians of will, while commitments are really bottom up. It’s an orchestra that makes a commitment, and the decisions are just the flutes.

      “Would you become obsessed to achieve a goal?” That’s a very good question. It’s somewhere along the sell-your-soul-for-mastery line of things, but then, maybe it puts the sell-your-soul question in a different light. Considering the discussion, I wonder if obsession can ever be a choice? Maybe you can make a few decisions here and there that lead to an obsession, but really it’s a tidal force, like any other commitment, just one that asks for far more sacrifice.