What Works: Nonnegotiables

The freedom of commitment

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I know where I’ll be every Monday and Tuesday evening, and on Sunday mornings. And I know what I’ll be doing first thing every day. This is in stark contrast to a half dozen years ago. Then, the only thing you could count on from me was that I’d probably be alone in my apartment, though I probably wouldn’t answer the phone. I had no regular weekly commitments. Not a one. When I was invited to social events, I didn’t RSVP; I’d just show up or not — that way I could decide at the last minute. My decision was usually no. This change happened gradually, but it is the result of two large events — renewed sobriety and a radical deepening of my spiritual life — and one simple tool that I learned along the way: making commitments nonnegotiable.

Being unwaveringly faithful to commitments is seen today as quaint, almost anachronistic. Obedience and discipline are not very popular words. I want you to consider increasing the number of commitments in your life. Having nonnegotiable appointments gives life structure, gives you comfort, reduces anxiety, raises the esteem in which you’re held, and simply makes life easier to manage. It also guarantees you do some things that are good for you that might not otherwise get done.

Our society tells us we can have, and should want to have, whatever we want whenever we want it. We’re told that “The Man” — our boss, parents, religion, government — wants to limit us, and that the true American spirit, the true “modern” spirit, is “free.” We might nominally remain members of families, companies, communities and religions, but don’t tell us we have to do something we don’t agree with or we shed those obligations in a flash.

But that rugged-individualist freedom is an illusion. It exists in denial of the fact that there are trade-offs when choices are made, that we can’t just do whatever we want whenever we want without consequences. We want no commitments and no consequences. But as Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled:

Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.

We all struggle with commitments — going to the gym, our diet, meditating daily, staying sober. We did them all faithfully at first. Some we abandoned in weeks or months. Others we continue, but feel as if we’re fighting ourselves to do the right thing.

I’ve often said that in my recovery, I used to have one foot out the door in my head. I was there, but I wasn’t really a member of the club. I might have looked like I was fully committed, but on a deeper level I knew it was provisional for me. That’s why many well-meaning New Year’s resolutions fail. The commitment isn’t really that deep.

Making things nonnegotiable

Don’t audit life. I want to encourage you to make a few things nonnegotiable — things that take some willingness and effort and have benefits that aren’t instant. I’ll give you a few examples:

  • Daily prayer and meditation — it’s so easy to check email or turn on the TV and blow right past that moment of willingness first thing.
  • Religious service every week — we know once we get there we’ll see friends and be inspired, but to leave the house can seem almost insurmountable.
  • A weekly spiritually enriching group — meditation class, yoga, Bible study: pick something you want to do, but don’t manage to fit in consistently.
  • A culturally enriching activity — in The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes preplanned artist dates with yourself — two hours a week for a museum, show, hike in nature, stroll and dinner in a new neighborhood. Consider buying the subscription, not just individual tickets, to a local classical concert series.
  • If you are in recovery, don’t just drop in at various meetings; choose a “home group,” get a commitment there, show up early every week and starting planting roots.

A friend said to me the other day, when I mentioned I’d be writing about making things nonnegotiable, “Yes, well the hard part is deciding to make something nonnegotiable.” That’s right. It should be a difficult decision. I’m not saying you should do it lightly. You don’t want to commit to something that isn’t that important to you. Or overcommit at a level that’s stressful or unsustainable.

In our age of instant gratification and rebellion against authority, our first reaction can be a childish internal whine of, “Do I have to?” The crazy thing (and I use that word advisedly) is that we know it is good for us — we know that we will be happier in the long run if we do it. So, how do we make ourselves do it now, for that future benefit?

The antidote is simple

The answer, to use Scott Peck’s word, is discipline.

I’m not talking about self-righteously living a tightly controlled life —  “an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety” (Colossians 2:23) — no, I’m talking about the maturity to discern and follow our internal compass, relying on the fruits of the Holy Spirit of self-control and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22-23).

When we avoid committing ourselves to things, we end up with too much freedom . So the antidote is surprisingly simple: take away some of our own freedom. Making a few things nonnegotiable with guidance from the Holy Spirit, rooted in an authentic willingness, is totally different from begrudging obedience to an external rule. When the moment of action comes, there is no internal debate, feeling oppressed or procrastinating till it’s too late. We just do it.

That willingness can falter, of course. A few summers ago, I embraced the lax summer vibe at my parish and took the “nonnegotiable” status off morning mass. Then sometimes an event would conflict with evening mass and I’d say, well, I’ll catch a mass during the week… and forget. Next thing I knew, I realized in shock that I hadn’t been to mass in a month. Within weeks, my impulses had sidelined a key part of my spiritual life. We need structure from our faith community and support from the Holy Spirit. We can’t do this alone.

I have several nonnegotiables in my weekly routine, blocked out on my calendar. Barring a genuine and extremely important conflict, no matter what “better” offer comes along, whether I feel like it or not, whether I feel well or not — unless I’m contagious or really too sick to get out of bed — I am there. (Some people have jobs that require them to shift their schedules around, and I understand that, though I’m not sure I would accept such a job.)

This structure, this discipline, frames my week. I know where I’ll be on those days. And people can count on my being there. It creates consistency, which is an estimable trait. It’s hard to explain why the experience of consistency is so good. It’s a somewhat mystical phenomenon. The simple experiential truth for me is that the way I used to live — treating all commitments as provisional, not wanting people to count on me so I wouldn’t let them down — was disconnected, adrift. Now, being in the same places and seeing the same people each week, with a variety of commitments for which others can count on me, is comforting and fortifying. It grounds me in my faith community, my wider world, and God.

I encourage you to try the suggestions in the sidebar on the right. Have you struggled with maintaining nonnegotiables in your life? Have you experienced feeling fortified by them? Share your thoughts, opinions and experience below in a comment, or by email at phil AT bustedhalo DOT com .


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