“A Promise Made Is A Debt Unpaid”
Do you remember the Robert Service poem entitled The Cremation Of Sam McGee?
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Artic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Sam McGee was from Tennessee and the bitter Artic cold was more than he could take. Furthermore, he shuddered at the thought of an icy grave and that led him to make his partner promise cremation. Left with the burden of cremating Sam’s remains, the partner says, “Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.” Cap, the partner, finds a way to fulfill his promise and cremate Sam McGee.
Yes, there was a time when a man’s word was his bond. A verbal commitment was as good as a contract. However, times have changed and undoubtedly, in todays culture, Cap would have dumped Sam McGee on the trail and found justifiable reasons for not keeping his word.
Politicians make promises that evaporate after the last ballot has been counted. Friends promise help that never materializes. Couples learn how to spell yes with a no. Perhaps we should write the poem to go something like this:
There are strange things done in the noonday sun
By the people who toil for fun;
The surf and whales have their secret tales
That would make you gasp and run;
The setting sun has cast its light
On many a frightful sight;
But none compares to the awful glare
Of the word that’s filled with air!
So what has led us to this place where our word is no longer our bond? The legal document is often no more than meaningless words on paper. At the risk of being simplistic I want to suggest two areas that have shaped our thinking and left is in a place of defenseless isolation: The relativity of moral values; and The enticement of radical individualism.
The Relativity Of Moral Values—We have obscured the line between good and evil, noble and base. Man has become the evaluator and society the sum total of individual preferences. Outcomes are given inherent value by me and you do not have the right to impose your expectations upon my words.
The Enticement Of Radical Individualism—This could be called “Collective Schizophrenia”—it represents the tension of the many and the individual. Personal pleasure is the apex of personal pursuit. My freedom and happiness take priority over the collective good. As a result we have a society full of possessions but drained of ideals. The caring community has evolved into the community of convenience. Robert Bellah, in his book, “Habits Of The Heart” describes this condition as “Ontological individualism.” In other words, individualism, not community, is really what defines our being. Putting it simply, LIFE IS ALL ABOUT ME! Its about my personal success and my personal feelings.
If these two components exist, why should keeping my word be an issue? If life is not about you and how you are impacted by my words then why should it matter if I disappoint you with my unfulfilled commitment? Get over it and move on.
To remove moral absolutes and embrace radical individualism is an invitation to self-destruction. The path of liberty is fenced with moral absolutes and reinforced by a community of people who are willing to invest their assets for the good of the whole.
Sam McGee’s wish for cremation was fulfilled by a man whose word was his bond. Imagine Cap’s surprise when he opened the boiler door:
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close the door.
It’s fine in here but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm,
Since I left Plumtree down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
I choose this year to be a man of my word—one who can be counted on to do what he has said he will do.