Any commitment has at least three levels. In order of increasing depth, we might call them the form, the substance, and the purpose. These are strongest when they align with each other.
We are wise to revise our commitments when they fall out of alignment. As we go along I provide simple, concrete examples. We also examine that which interferes with our commitments.
From the most core to most outer, I define commitment as follows.
II. Levels of Commitment
Purpose—that which you see as the reason you exist. It brings meaning to what you do. When consciously articulated, it defines how you show up. Greater clarity and integrity with purpose brings joy, confidence, and effectiveness.
A generic expression of purpose that applies to being human is: (1) continuously learning, healing, and growing to (2) continue becoming a more mature, loving, wise, happy human being so that we may (3) express and offer the utmost of our gifts and talents in service of others. Infinite ways to articulate and express this in our unique, nuanced situations exist. These are some of the fundamental elements to realizing fulfillment.
Realizing fulfillment is different than pursuing happiness. It's cultivation, not chase.
Alignment with purpose grows over time, with right attitude and approach. It entails maturing beyond the zeal for instant perfection. We systematically identify and overcome fear, resistance, and noise from little demons.
Purpose operates in stages. It begins with a yearning for change. It becomes a general kind of reorientation and regular challenge of one's own mindset. Then it starts to become less vague and come into sharper focus. Then it becomes the obvious motivator for everything you do. (I am still learning this.)
One realizes purpose is something much deeper than giving to a good cause to be a good person. That can still be selfish. That can still come back to the game of pretense and defense and the appearances one is trying to maintain.
Moving towards greater purpose is about being a warrior. One works to reclaim one’s life beyond appearances and conformity. It’s about moving beyond dryness and that ache many of us feel in our bones. Moving towards purpose means refusal to accept normal while not devolving into rebellion.
Substance of a Commitment:
What are you driven by? What motivates you?
We can articulate substantive commitments in each area of our lives. We define what that area means to us and how it helps us live into our deeper purpose. (By all the areas of our lives, I mean: professional, financial, relationship, health, spiritual, family, friends, sexuality, etc.)
Let's take the professional realm as an example. I commit to learning/creating/sharing innovative economic and business models. I am interested in models which which are humane and sustainable. I want to help us express wiser ways of being in the world.
Through this path, I challenge my edges. I create situations to serve others. I provoke defense mechanisms to observe how they operate. I gain new opportunities to systematically dismantle them.
Substance is not a specific, concrete expression of what. It’s rather a direction—a kind of north star. It’s a path by which the deeper purpose can be realized. It is a means to deeper contentment as well as tangible growth in healthy self-expression.
If substance doesn’t connect to purpose, we experience anguish or numbness. It’s as simple and mathematical as that. When we feel anxious, depressed, or disturbed with outer circumstances, our lives aren’t aligned with who we are.
That negative emotional experience is actually a kind of mercy from Life. It’s pain steering us back in the direction of where our actual fulfillment lies. The longer it’s ignored, the more things stay the same.
A relevant side note:
Despite difficult times, there are genuine reasons for optimism and excitement. We have collectively settled for nothing beyond survival and status for far too long. We have taken this material view as all there is to life, as THE reality. We can agree the status quo is pretty lame.
Many of us have tired of dull waiting with passing entertainments, but no deepening of fulfillment. The challenge is that when we move in the direction of our deeper purpose and sense of self, we have to face fear. Fear and safety created the life we oriented towards and chose in the first place.
Yet, much of the "purpose" movement which is taking root today exists on the level of substance, not purpose. It isn't about deep growth and service. It remains material rather than spiritual. So fulfillment remains subject to limitation, even if the potential has grown.
Form of a Commitment:
In this simplistic model, this is the most superficial type of commitment. But it’s often what we confuse as being the whole truth of commitment.
For example, let’s say I commit to explore a methodology with a business partner. Let's say their methodology unfolds over the course of the year. And let’s say circumstances change. The exploration loses its value within months. What is the best course of action?
Once we get to the outermost level, we find that any given action in of itself is not indicative of health. Because appearances alone reveal very little and are not the source of fulfillment. We live in a world where it's relatively easy to look good on paper. It's much harder to create a life of true authenticity.
It's neither staying married nor getting divorced that is a sign of true commitment. Each can be appropriate in the right circumstances. The action alone reveals little.
Here's a little rule of thumb. If the substance or the purpose become compromised by maintaining the form, then we let the form go. It’s the least important of our commitments. It's the bicycle you are riding on the path of substance. The bicycle is dispensable. And if it gets a flat, you have a good pair of walking shoes until you find the next one.
There is a price to pay. You may not please the other. But making decisions from the inside out bears long-term dividends.
Only you know your motivation and rationale. And always beware of self-deception. This model isn't an excuse to duck out of true responsibilities. I attempt to add texture to self-reflection. It's not a set of rules to avoid self-reflection.
Only we know why we made a certain decision or why we remain in a certain situation. There are no “final solutions”. One of many keys to a good life is to focus fully on character, and much less on reputation. What decision is in integrity with you?
D. Bonus — The Hidden Competing Commitment Why are gyms packed at the beginning of January and already have tumbleweeds blowing through by February? It’s because the “New Year’s Resolution” approach to change doesn’t work. Change has deeper implications than conscious will alone. For example, even when life is on the line, only 1 in 7 heart patients are able to make recommended lifestyle changes.
Let’s look at this through a professional lens. What is it that stops us from moving in the direction of what we want to realize? Typically it includes fear and pride. We are scared of the threat to our identity.
For example, if I put myself out there and no one gets interested—I am forced to challenge whatever cherished illusions I may be holding. I may fail or make mistakes. People may judge me. There's lots of worse case scenarios boiling underneath the surface. There’s all sorts of risks that I can imagine might come true that seem threatening. So in a way, I am deeply committed to that not happening, to staying safe.
So one foot is on the gas and one foot is on the brakes. There is a part of ourselves deeply committed to the opposite of the direction we want to move. It wants to keep us safe.
The world ends up being smaller. The perceived threats are kind of a barbed wire enclosing us into an artifically limited space. Dipping our toes on the other side of that fence is venturing into unchartered territory. But the comfort zone is actually super uncomfortable.
The number one deathbed regret is living a life according to the expectations of others.
Concious, individual choice powers strong commitments. Appearance-based motivations undermine integrity. Sometimes purpose and commitment means disappointing others. Yet when we say no to others from the core, it's a yes to our fulfillment. It's worth trusting that a life lived from greater levels of depth will be more meaningful and fulfilling in the long-term.