Two excepts from a book I recently read:
"Consider someone with an alcohol problem. After years of problem drinking, she finally decides to make a change. She goes into rehab. She gets the best education about alcoholism and its treatment. She assembles a team of doctors, therapists, good friends, and loved ones to support her through recovery. And then she makes a promise to herself: I’m not going to take another drink. Will she drink again? We don’t know. And as long as she’s still breathing, we’ll never know—and neither will she. We might talk about the odds of her relapse, based on the success rates of the treatments she receives. We might look at examples of commitments she has made in the past and make a guess about her commitment “credit score.” But the only way to “answer” the question of whether she’ll drink again is to watch each unfolding moment of her life—from now until she draws her last breath—to see whether she’ll open another bottle or raise another glass to her lips. Depending on circumstances, we could be watching this process for a very long time. And all the while, we’ll be swimming in—you guessed it—ambiguity. Many people in recovery struggle with this not-knowing, and there’s more than a little reason to suppose that this struggle is behind many a relapse: In the moment when she takes that next drink, the ambiguity goes away. We get our answer: yes, she will drink again. And in that answer, even if it’s devastating, she gets a moment of peace."
(Note: This story is only the first part and does not have this sad end. It is just used to setup the backdrop to show that the person was finally able to kick her alcoholism)
Now jump ahead ten years. Let’s say she really turns her life around. She falls in with some people who help her kick her drinking problem. They set her up in a job in the mail room of an importexport company. Over the years, she works her way out of the mail room and into the sales department. Eventually, she’s promoted to manage a team of salespeople based in China. She finds herself in the business class of a jetliner, flying from Los Angeles to Beijing. She’s wiping her hands on a hot towel; flight attendants are offering her sparkling mineral water and extra pillows. To go from skid row to business class, our friend would have to beat some pretty steep odds. But stories like hers are not unheard of by any means. When she was trying to make it to the next year, though, do you suppose she was dreaming of hot towels and sparkling water thirty-five thousand feet over the Pacific? Chances are she wasn’t. Life is often like that: we can only see so far ahead, and to be able to imagine the possibilities once we’ve reached a certain future point, we sometimes need to just move off in that direction and see what happens next. We just don’t know how things will turn out much of the time. This being the case, the outcomes of our commitments, whether they’re to limited goals or evolving values, aren’t something we have a lot of control over. But moment to moment, we can commit to doing something that will get us a little closer to whatever it is that matters to us. And when we fail—and we will fail—we’ll suddenly find ourselves in a new moment where, once again, we can commit to our valued lives.
There’s a story in the Bible that points at the understanding of commitment we’re arguing for. It’s the story of Peter, first among the apostles, the “rock” on which Jesus declares he’ll build his church. It’s also the story of Peter, the undependable, unfaithful, and short-tempered fisherman. These two people are one and the same—and this matters for the purpose of our discussion of commitment. (And just so we’re clear: we relate this only because we love it. It’s a beautiful description of what it means to be committed to something even though we’re all too human and fallible. This isn’t Sunday school, and we’re not preachers—just a couple of guys hooked on a story.) It all starts when Jesus comes upon Simon Peter, his brother, and a couple of other fishermen, plying their trade on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In most of the gospels, Peter decides to join up with Jesus after Jesus promises to make him a “fisher of men” (for example, see Matt. 4:18–19). In the Gospel of Luke, though, Peter is talked into apostle-hood only when the Messiah offers him a professional tip that directs him to “a great multitude of fishes” (Luke 5:6). This is the start of a roller-coaster relationship that winds its way through Judea. In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter accompanies Jesus when he walks on water, only to lose faith at the last minute and go splashing down into the drink (Matt. 14:28–31). During the last supper, Jesus foretells his own death and warns that, with him gone, the apostles’ faith will be shaken. “Though all may have their faith in you shaken,” Peter brays, “mine will never be” (Matt. 26:23), making a characteristic promise-about-the-future commitment. Jesus, indulgent, replies that not only will Peter’s faith be shaken, but he will also actually commit three acts of betrayal even before the night is over(Matt. 26:34). But before we can see how the betrayal part of the story plays out, Jesus up and takes Peter and some of the other disciples off to the garden of Gethsemane. The Messiah asks Peter and his fellows to keep watch. Jesus goes into the garden to pray, but when he comes back, he finds Peter and the others sound asleep (Matt. 26:40), leading Jesus to remark that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26.41). As if that weren’t bad enough, Peter can’t even stay awake a second time or even a third—making the whole agony-in-the-garden thing pretty much a bust for Peter. When the priests and Pharisees, acting on a tip from Judas, come to arrest Jesus, Peter is once again in rare form. In the Gospel of John, as Jesus is taken into custody, Peter loses his temper, draws his sword, and hacks the ear off of the high priest’s servant, some poor schlub named Malchus. Again, Jesus gently rebukes him, and the story continues. While Jesus is questioned, Peter sulks off into the street and snuggles up to a warm fire. It doesn’t take too long for a servant girl to recognize the first of the disciples. And here come the betrayals: Uh, no. You must be mistaking me for someone else (Mark 14:68). Not satisfied,she repeats her charge to the others gathered around, to which Peter responds something like: Jesus? Never met the guy (Mark 14:70). Finally, the people around the fire get wise: You so have a Galilean accent! It’s not as if there are that many Galileans kicking around Jerusalem. You must be friends with this Jesus guy. Caught, Peter does what many of us might do: he blows his stack, swears like a sailor (or maybe a fisherman?), and denies any knowledge of his master: “I know not this man of whom ye speak” (Mark 14:71). Then comes the grim day of the Crucifixion and the mystery of the Resurrection. Despite all of his shady behavior, Jesus still reveals himself to Peter several times. On the last occasion, he asks the disciple three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15–17). And each time Peter insists that he does. And so Jesus holds open the door to his disciple one more time: “Follow thou me” (John 21:22). There’s a lovely message in this story. It’s an acknowledgment that none of us is perfect. We have short tempers, bad moods, moments of faithlessness—and yet, as long as we’re above ground, we have a chance to turn back to what matters to us. Betrayal after betrayal, outburst after outburst—and Peter still comes back. It’s not necessarily as important that Jesus welcomes him—although this gives the story a much happier ending. What matters is that, each time he wandered, Peter turned back.