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The Undoing of Things

I smacked myself in the head with the side of the car door on Sunday.  After the initial writhing around, holding my temple, cursing everyone around me, the pain lowered to a dull throb that lasted for several days*.  All I wanted was to undo the moment, go back in time, not open the car door into the soft space on the side of my skull.  Being in physical pain sucks.  Being in physical pain due to your own clumsiness sucks hardcore.


I have a tendency to mentally run away on the what ifs.  Not the good, daydreamy what ifs, but the terrible, dark, horrible what ifs that rarely serve a purpose beyond allowing me to feel fear before I need to feel fear.  Borrowing trouble.  Pre-mourning.

It’s not as if I ever run out of these thoughts for myself, but I do them for other people too: people I care about such as the twins all the way to people I don’t know such as Aimee Copeland who lost her leg to a flesh-eating bacteria.  I read the news updates because my heart goes out to this girl and her family, and then I start thinking, what if it had rained that day? What if her trip had been cancelled?  What if too many people wanted to go on the zip line and she never got her turn?  Completely unhelpful thoughts even for Aimee herself to grapple with because what is done is done, and she can only move forward from here.

And yet I can’t stop mentally fiddling around with the future and past as if we are all Playmobil people in a Playmobil town to be manipulated and moved around by unseen hands, stories erased and restarted when they hit outcomes we don’t like.


The same quote keeps popping up in various places, though I’ve been unable to trace the origin of it.  It goes something along the lines of “worrying is praying for what you don’t want.”

I wish there was a way for someone to tally my daily thoughts for me, every single one that passes through my brain, and tell me at the end of the day if I did more hoping or more worrying (because wouldn’t hope be praying for what you do want?).  I fear if I tried to do it myself, I would skew the results, either thinking more terrible thoughts than usual because they’re the elephant that I’m not supposed to think about or thinking more good thoughts than usual because I want to be the type of person who hopes more than worries.

But it isn’t really a matter of evenness.  Doesn’t worry weigh heavier than hope?  Hope carries us away; it’s the balloon that we’re holding that makes us sail forward.  Worry is like holding an oversized crate that makes your arms and back ache as you struggle to move it to the basement storage room.


The ChickieNob asked a question recently that I couldn’t answer.  Many people, altogether, had taken a pledge.  The ChickieNob took the pledge to heart, bringing it up from time to time, especially when she noticed other people bending it.  One day, she realized that some people had broken the pledge, this promise that she made that she took very seriously, and she sobbed on our ride home.  She asked me from the backseat why she should ever keep her promises if other people break theirs?

How do you answer that?  Do you give her the cold hard truth that some people are careless at best and cruel at worst?  Do I soften the message and tell her that sometimes people will break a promise, but the broken promise never tells the whole story?

I wanted to pull the ChickieNob Playmobil figure out of that game, and start over, resetting up the plastic town.  I wanted her to unlearn that life lesson, to undo every decision that brought us to that place.  Because what if she takes this lesson to its logical conclusion?  Why should she trust others or make promises herself?

We all grow up and learn through trial and error who to trust and who not to trust; we know there are people out there who have our back no matter what, and we also know that there are people we are friends with as a matter of convenience and some people who we should avoid at all cost.  We learn about all the various shades of grey; that no one in this world is black or white, but that we are complicated, simplistic, wonderful, terrible beings.  And sometimes every single one of us breaks a promise.  And sometimes breaking that promise isn’t even indicative of how much the promise meant to us in the first place.

I know she will be fine in the end, because she needs to be fine in the end.  Because there is no undoing of things.  There’s only forward.

How would you answer her?  Why should she keep her promise to others if those people are not keeping their promise to her?  Is there a big enough difference between a promise and a statement, and should we be teaching kids (and some adults) to make statements instead of promises?

* No, I didn’t go to the hospital.  But I also have never made a promise to go to the hospital when I accidentally smack myself in the head.


1 Tiara { 05.16.12 at 12:00 pm }

My 1st instinct would be to try to teach her about integrity, keeping your promise because it’s the right thing to do, “to thine own self be true”…how would I explain all that? Your guess is as good as mine!

2 Sharon { 05.16.12 at 12:05 pm }

If your daughter asked me this question, I would tell her she should keep her promise to others even if other people are not keeping their promises to her because it’s the right thing to do and because she wants to be the kind of person who is true to her word and lives with integrity. I would try to teach her (a difficult lesson indeed) that we can only control our own behavior and choices, not other people’s.

Gah, that stuff is the hard part of parenting.

3 Sharon { 05.16.12 at 12:06 pm }

@Tiara: Jinx! We both said “integrity.” 🙂

4 Esperanza { 05.16.12 at 12:15 pm }

I agree with Sharon. We all have to learn what we’re willing to do even if there is no quarantine others will do it for us. And maybe you can remind her that you don’t have to make promises to some people, if you know they’ll break a promise with you. In the end we only have control over ourselves, what we do and how we respond to what others do. We need to make promises for ourselves, because we believe it is right, and not for other people.

5 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.16.12 at 12:21 pm }

Having this discussion via email, but it’s worth repeating here:

There are the annoying situations, such as the times when everyone is supposed to bring something to the potluck and I’m the only person who actually shows up with a dish. Everyone else has a decent excuse, but it still pisses me off that I took seriously this commitment to bring something and followed through whereas everyone else phoned it in. But then you have the truly enormous ones: if all the kids take an honesty pledge and then you discover that some of them were cheating on the test, how do you encourage your daughter to keep being honest? That isn’t the right thing to do? Because if she sees that there are no consequences for cheating and there are no rewards for being honest, it creates this question of why should it matter what I do? Beyond how it makes me feel about myself?

And yes, of course it comes down to integrity but we’re looking at it from an adult point-of-view. Now look at it as a kid who doesn’t understand what integrity means. All she knows is that some people cheat and some people are honest and those that cheat get ahead and those that are honest sometimes fall behind, and her mother is asking her to be honest. Just because. With some reason being about how it’s the right thing to do.

6 Ordinary Girl { 05.16.12 at 12:26 pm }

I saw so much of myself in the beginning of this post. The only difference was that my dumb injury involved my tailbone and it’s still hanging around months later. Guh. The worry and all that though, I hear you.

As for the hard questions that kids ask, I always feel like I should have better answers. When I was teaching I did pretty good in the moment. It’s easy to tell kids to treat other people the way they want to be treated. It’s harder to explain why everyone doesn’t do that. I’m always impressed with the way that you explain things to your kids though and the amazing thoughtfulness that they show. I hope your daughter finds an answer that makes sense to her.

7 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.16.12 at 12:28 pm }

Here’s a question: would you keep a vow to your partner if they didn’t keep their vow to you? Does the breaking of the vow by one person make it null and void for the other? Or are vows made between two people actually two separate vows, and one side can continue to exist even if the other person doesn’t keep their side?

8 Kat { 05.16.12 at 12:47 pm }

Although I reject the notion that negative thinking causes bad things to happen, I really like that expression that worry is praying for what you don’t want, just as sort of a reminder that while preparing is good, worry is pretty much useless.

Chickie nob sounds like such a sweetheart with such a pure heart. You must be proud. I think I world say that you can never know why others make the choices they do, but it’s important to know why you make your own choices, and it’s always OK to stick to what you believe in, even if others don’t share your feelings.

9 Kat { 05.16.12 at 1:04 pm }

Ooh, just wanted to add a couple things because I just read your other comments (yes, I commented without reading the comments first, I get docked ten internet brownie points 😉 ). For one, I’m kind of shocked you’ve gone to potlucks and were the only one with a dish. That’s the whole point of a potluck. I’d be embarrassed to show up to one empty handed and totally understand your annoyance. Secondly, I sort of believe every vow and promise we make to another, is ultimately a pact we make with ourselves. If my husband broke our wedding vows, that absolutely does not mean I can also. Unless or until we’re no longer married, my vows to him are my vows not to break. Maybe him breaking them first would make it easier for me to also break them, but I would still be breaking them. In fact, I actually kind of believe that if a couple is separated but not divorced, then other relationships are still sort of cheating. They may not be morally or ethically wrong, and the other person may not care, but it is cheating, at least on a technicality.

10 a { 05.16.12 at 1:44 pm }

I kinda see things a little differently than Kat – I believe that once one party breaks the vow, the other party is no longer held to it. The other party make the moral/ethical choice to not break the vow until the partnership is officially dissolved, but the bond was broken regardless of the paperwork. But that’s only when it’s a vow between 2 people. A group vow to a teacher is not quite the same thing – the actions of the other students don’t have a direct effect on the ChickieNob. It would be unfair actions by the teacher that would merit a broken vow.

What should you tell the ChickieNob? Well, there’s my favorite: If you don’t mean it, then don’t promise it. The reason she should keep her promises is because it will keep her conscience quiet. If she feels badly when hurting other people, then keeping her word is the best way to avoid hurting other people and feeling badly. And it doesn’t matter what other people do, because they are led by their own conscience. All of that leads to another important life lesson that so many people need to learn: It’s OK to say no. In fact, it’s better to say no than to promise something you have no intention of delivering.

11 Cristy { 05.16.12 at 1:45 pm }

What a complex question! Honestly, I don’t know if there’s really one good answer to it. I think what it comes down to is one’s values and path in life. Your example of the potluck is a good place to start. You took the commitment seriously while others didn’t. Yes their excuses may be valid, but the point remains that this wasn’t a commitment they valued. This isn’t completely a matter of integrity (otherwise people wouldn’t spend the time coming up with excuses for why they blew off this commitment in order to preserve theirs), what it’s a matter of is your moral code and how you see yourself in the world. In other words, can you live with your decisions?

I would be interested in knowing why ChickieNob took the pledge to heart. What was it that spoke to her? Clearly this pledge is directly connected to her moral code, which is part of her sense of self. I’d then be interested in hearing what her thoughts are about those who did not honor this pledge. Has her opinion about them changed? What are her thoughts about people that blow off a commitment that she holds dear?

The reality is, we exist in a world filled with people who have different moral codes. Some of those codes are similar to our own, making the formation of relationships very easy. Others are completely the opposite. I’m not saying one group is right while the other is wrong, but I know that there are core values I hold that make it incredibly difficult to form relationships (personal or professional) with people who don’t agree. And hence I know to minimize my exposure or to put up extra safeguards while dealing with these individuals.

12 a { 05.16.12 at 1:48 pm }

Also, regarding the head wound…if it makes you feel any better, I whacked myself in the head in pure cartoon style once. You know the cartoons where someone is running around on a lawn and they step on a rake and it flips up and whacks them right between the eyes? Yeah, I did that. I believe I actually saw stars and birds were tweeting around my head..

13 ANDMom { 05.16.12 at 1:54 pm }

I think if I were trying to explain it to her, I would do it in terms of how it makes HER feel.

How does it make you feel when someone breaks their promise? Bad, sad, angry. Negative emotions.

Do YOU want to be the one to make someone else feel that way? Do you want to be the cause of someone else feeling bad, sad, or angry? Hopefully she’d say no … and then there’s a solid reason to keep your promise. So you’re not the cause of hurting someone else. If she says yes … um, well, good luck with that.

And you know, how does it make you feel when you did what you said you’d do? Usually good. So … there’s the other reason.

14 Tigger { 05.16.12 at 2:38 pm }

It’s all about character. Make promises you can keep, and don’t break the ones you make. Sometimes it IS unavoidable and you must break them, but try very hard not to. It’s honesty. It’s what makes us who we are. It makes us trustworthy.

15 Chickenpig { 05.16.12 at 2:40 pm }

I would tell her that it is her decision to make about herself. Does she want to think if herself as a person who keeps promises? Or as a person who doesn’t care about breaking promises? Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what every other person does or thinks around you.

Sorry that you hit your head. Don’t think of it as hurting yourself, think of it more as the car door attacking you. Stupid car door, how dare you hurt my friend!

16 Alexicographer { 05.16.12 at 3:26 pm }

I don’t think I have anything to add to the deeper discussion right now (and I may never), because my thoughts on the topic are too “churned,” but I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and enjoyed it (and I don’t enjoy all King’s writing, as some do), and would recommend it, if someone wants some light (er, not truly light) summer reading on the “what if” question. I found the book thought-provoking and oddly reassuring.

17 A.M.S { 05.16.12 at 3:28 pm }

This will seem like a silly comparison, but I have a point. We use cloth diapers and I hang them out to dry on the clothesline. The only exceptions to using the clothesline are: rain, freezing cold, and finding ourselves without a single clean diaper for some reason. We do this because we felt like cloth diapers were the best choice for The Moonpie and environmentally sound which put them in line with our personal value system. But, at 7 in the morning it is very hard to make myself lug that basket of wet diapers outside and pin them up on the line. If it’s January and 40 degrees outside and windy, it’s even harder. I mean, the dryer is right there next to the washing machine. But. I made this choice because it mattered to me and your ethics and values really don’t mean anything unless you stick to them when it is most difficult to do so. If something matters enough to you to make a promise about it then chances are it is something that will, at some point, test your resolve. I guess when the time comes, I”ll tell The Moonpie that we make promises because something is important to us and breaking that promise would make us feel bad inside. We can’t control whether other people keep their promises, and sometimes those other people are going to let us down, but we don’t have to be like that. If we make a promise, to someone else or just to ourselves, then we do everything we can to keep it so we don’t make anyone feel bad, even if the only person who would feel bad is us. Do no harm, not even to yourself. Actions come back threefold in the long run. 😉 Sorry ChickieNob is learning that people don’t always follow through so early. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that I *still* get schooled on, all these years later. I suppose that just means I continue to have faith that people are trustworthy. Or that I’m a poor judge of character. Not sure which.

I HATE doing that with the car door. Can’t tell you how many times that happens to me. The rear hatch on my car has a particularly vicious odd little point on it that always gets me.

18 Erica { 05.16.12 at 4:37 pm }

I love Sharon’s answer. I’d add this to it: when you make a promise, you commit yourself, your integrity, to the keeping of it. I think that when people break a promise they lose little bits of their integrity (or even big bits, depending on the promise), of what makes them good and honest and trustworthy. I’ve broken promises, and I think most of us have, but breaking them comes at a cost, and it’s good to know that cost, to know why making and breaking promises is a big deal. It affects others and how they see you, but more importantly it affects the core matter of who you are.

19 a { 05.16.12 at 4:53 pm }

Oh, one more thing on the car door…I also ruined thousands of dollars of orthodontia by hitting my front tooth with the car door…twice. (I also walked that tooth into a wall. It’s amazing how something that’s not protruding keeps being the part that gets hit).

20 Queenie { 05.16.12 at 5:40 pm }

Have you asked her how she would feel if she broke her promise? Maybe you can frame the discussion in terms of how it makes her feel when others break their promises and how she would feel if she broke her promise, and the idea that we keep our promises because we don’t want to feel bad and we don’t want to make others feel bad. That seems like it’s at a level that she can understand. Maybe. It raises the question of what to do if/when she decides it wouldn’t make her feel bad to break a promise, though.

I am a worrier, too, of epic proportions. Oh, and I always have a bruise somewhere on my body from doing something stupid, so you’re not alone there, either.

21 Wolfers { 05.16.12 at 6:33 pm }

To me, promises is a part of trust and dependability that takes on responsibility of seeing it through. I would ask questions such as, if I feel if one cannot keep promises, how can I trust or depend him/her in the future? How can one guarantee that this won’t happen in other situations? Use comparision in making a promise to take care of a dog, as equal to taking responsibility to take care of the dog. Recently, I talk with a teenager about trust issues which include broken promises, I tend to ask “forget other people- Imagine this, see yourself as a friend, WOULD you trust your friend who is YOU with your promises? Would the friend want to trust you? How would this affect the friendship?”

22 Wolfers { 05.16.12 at 6:41 pm }

Wanted to add, there are situations that sometimes promises has to be broken, but one gotta think through it to be aware of the aftermath, and to take responsibility for what would happen. Recently, I was there for a close friend through thin and thick, and she considered it as a promise that I’d be there forever for her. Unfortunately, suddenly finding myself childless without choice and her announcing her pregnancy (after claiming she didn’t want children in time I have known her), I had to think hard and long with tears, on whether I had a responsibility to her, a promise to be there for her, despite being newly exposed to childlessness. I had to pick me over her, the priority is me at this time, and I didn’t like it. She didn’t like it. But that is something I have to live with, and something I had already starting to forgive myself.
Sorry for going off the topic.

23 Justine { 05.16.12 at 8:21 pm }

I was going to say the same thing about making a promise to oneself, and not exactly just for other people … but everyone has already said it. 🙂

I don’t know … breaking a vow, even if someone else has broken it, seems like “eye for an eye.” If your husband cheats on you, does that make it OK for you to cheat on him? I don’t feel like that’s true … though it may mean the relationship has to end. I think it’s OK to leave a relationship if the person breaks a vow and the relationship is beyond repair. Still, there’s a lot of communicating that should happen first.

In my son’s Montessori classroom, when someone hurts someone else, they have to go to the peace table to resolve their feelings. And each child gets a chance to speak his/her mind, while holding a flower … while the flower is in the child’s hands, no one can interrupt him/her. I don’t know if the ChickieNob can talk to the people who have broken their vows, but it would be valuable for her to be able to tell them how that makes her feel … and perhaps valuable for them, too. If nothing else, it would validate her promise.

I wish this were a lesson she didn’t have to learn.

24 Katie { 05.16.12 at 8:31 pm }

That’s a difficult question to answer. I used to be the type of person who would say that if the other person has broken their promise to you, then there’s no point of keeping your promise to them. But as I’ve gotten older (and gotten married), that perspective has changed for me. As others mentioned, I think it does have to do with keeping a promise to yourself just as much as it has to do with keeping a promise to the other person. It’s not simply about how the other person would feel if you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain, so to speak. How would YOU feel, too? It’s about honesty toward others, but also honesty toward yourself. I’d say “don’t make promises you can’t keep,” but it’s life isn’t that simple. You’re going to break promises at some point in your life. The question is whether you learn from those broken promises.

(Re: the head injury – I once slammed my head in a car door. Completely sober. This should give you an idea of how klutzy I am…)

25 Audrey { 05.16.12 at 8:53 pm }

Hmm, that’s tough. I think I would first explain that sometimes make promises without really thinking about them first. That it’s important to think about what you are promising and decide if it is something you can really carry through on, which is what these other people failed to do. They meant the promise when they made it, they had good intentions, but they ultimately weren’t able to keep it. Learning how to tell which promises you can keep and which you can’t takes time for some people, it’s a process that teaches them about self control and commitment and teaches others about their reliability. So it’s good that she kept her promise, because it means she is able to carry through on her promises and people can rely on that. They can trust her and perhaps most importantly, she can trust herself.

26 aprilvak { 05.16.12 at 9:13 pm }

Honesty is one of the most important things there is, but I’m dreading the day one of us has to field that question from our daughter, because without dishonesty and broken promises, she wouldn’t be here. I can’t condemn the action without feeling like I’m somehow denying her right to exist. Yes, it is VERY important to keep your promises, but it’s more important to only make promises you know you can keep.

27 sass { 05.17.12 at 6:44 am }

Hmmm. It is an important lesson, isn’t it? That some people don’t keep promises. It’s not a fun one, but it is important. It can tell you something about whether you can trust a person. I think maybe the lessons are the same, for a child or an adult. * When someone breaks a promise, it can make you feel bad. It can make you trust that person less. She knows this already, I’m sure. * Because of this you should not make promises you can’t keep. It’s important to be very careful before you say “I promise”; if you’re not certain about something, it’s better to say “I’ll try.” * Sometimes promises are broken because a person decides they aren’t worth keeping and that is hurtful. But other times people do their best to keep the promises they’ve made, but they aren’t able. This is probably something a child can understand too.

If they don’t know why the promise was broken, would it be better have a child assume that someone is doing their best, or assume that they chose not to keep their promise? Which would be more helpful?

28 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.17.12 at 5:07 pm }

First of all, how is your head today? Ooof.

Second, another oof on having to explain grownups to the ChickieNob. There are some people who don’t keep promises. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep promised because WE are the kind of people who keep our promises. The best we can do is to not believe people who make and break promises to us. Avoid if possible, and do NOT depend on them to keep their word.

But us? We keep our word because it’s the right thing to do. There is an inner burden for not keeping our word, and we don’t want to carry that burden.

Caveat: I speak in black and white for acquaintanceships, but really, for more intimate relationships, things are likely more enduring and thus more nuanced (dare I say shades of grey?).

29 loribeth { 05.18.12 at 8:45 am }

Ditto on the head — how are you feeling? I’ve gotten clobbered on the head twice in the past 10 years — once when vaccuuming in the bathroom, brought my head up, right onto the towel rack — & another time in the car — dh was using one of those club things on the steering wheel — had taken it off & was tossing it into the back seat — just as I leaned forward. It barely tapped me on the temple, but my head ached for weeks afterward (both times). I STILL feel it there, once in a great while, five years later. I didn’t go to the hospital either time. I probably should have. I did go to the dr days later, but since I hadn’t knocked myself out, shown signs of dizziness or nausea, etc., he wasn’t too concerned. Sometimes, after reading about all the hockey & football players with head trauma in the last few years, I wonder if he/I should have been. Ice packs, tylenol (not asprin) & lots of rest.

As for ChickieNob’s question — that’s a tough one, & there are some great answers here. As I scrolled down, I had the thought that sometimes we make promises & intend to keep them, but circumstances make it difficult or impossible to do so. I see Sass said more or less the same thing just above.

30 clare { 05.22.12 at 6:00 am }

Such a great conversation… I was raised that promises are something coming from you. As with other things in life, you can learn from how others live, but at the end of the day you have to live in a way that is true to you. What others do, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to live the same way.

I think the comment above “If you don’t mean it, then don’t promise it” sums it up for me, with the caveat of “if you stop meaning it, let people counting on you know your promise has changed”

We all promise things and later have to change it.

For me, a promise is a way for me to state my intentions so it is a bit easier for others and myself to know what to do with me. I could do billions of things, but I am a bit more predictable when I make and keep a few promises. It gives structure to the chaos. People like a bit of predictability. So promises are a gift to ourselves and those around us to make the world make a bit more sense. For me they aren’t carved in stone, they are just intentions that I can count on (to varying degrees depending on the person). I don’t keep them out of some external pressure. I keep them because it helps me be me… and the secondary reward is that it provides a foundation for people to build relationships with me.

I think that is what I would tell my daughter. Relationships are built on what we do, and we give promises so people can see what we will do in the future. These things can change because people change. But if we don’t keep our promises (and don’t tell people when we are changing them) and make promises we don’t indeed to keep, we are making it hard for people to know us and trust us. And for us to trust in our selves. That, in the end, means people have to know us only in the past and present and can’t imagine a future with us — and for some people, that will make it harder to be good friends.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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