On the Binary Nature of Commitment

March 18 2024


When I was a kid I had a friend whose dad used to drive us around in his big white pickup truck. It was old and dirty, an F-150 I think, and one day I saw that it had a crack, a very small one, in the windshield. A rock flew up and hit me. My friend’s dad said. I’ll get it fixed one of these days. Over time, I watched that crack grow. What started as minor damage to the bottom-right corner spread upward and outward until eventually it reached all the way across. Eventually it appeared that one could break the windshield with a single finger.

I’ve often said that life is not black and white, but exists on a constant spectrum of gray. I still believe this is true. But I also think that we, as humans, possess a unique capacity for the black and white, and this is no accident. And that this capacity shows up in the choices we make, and the things that we commit to. (If we commit to anything at all.)

Maybe, if life is brutish and short, it makes no sense to make any commitments. Why should we? It might just mean we’re making our lives harder unnecessarily, imposing extra constraints when all that really matters is that we survive and reproduce.

I wholeheartedly reject this sentiment. Even if life is meaningless and there’s nothing waiting for us but an endless void, I think that making commitments is the only sane way to respond. It’s a way of taking ownership, of assuming responsibility. It’s better than being buffeted about endlessly by the winds of fortune. There’s a lot of bravery in committing to something with no guarantee of a reward. And if it turns out there is meaning and purpose in the universe after all, well then hey, all the better.

I now think of choices, and commitments, in terms of structural integrity. Just like my friend’s dad’s windshield, something may have 98% structural integrity. At first, that crack only covered two percent of the windshield at most. And 98% sounds great, it’s an A+ after all. But if you ask any structural engineer, or NASA rocket scientist, 98% is unacceptable. A rocket with 98% structural integrity will explode on launch one hundred percent of the time. Wherever the weakness is, wherever there is not one hundred percent integrity, is exactly where the problems will arise from. Just think of the Challenger tragedy. The explosion was caused by something called an O-ring, which was just a circular piece of rubber meant to expand and contract. When that tiny piece of rubber failed, the entire craft exploded.

Another example is a surgeon preparing for open heart surgery. Would they be okay with operating in a surgical theater that was 98% sterile? Would you? By the same token, being 98% committed to something is just another way of saying you aren’t committed to it at all.

Some things really are all or nothing. Some things only work if you’re all in. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can back out of a door once we’ve gone through. We make a choice but we leave our options open, or try to anyway, because we want the ability to undo the choice later if we regret it. I’ve been guilty of that before. But now I understand that it’s not about making the “right choice” so much as it is about making the choice right. The doors that are behind you, are behind you. All that’s left are the doors that lie ahead. No matter what your view of life is, it doesn’t make sense to do anything with less than 100% commitment. If you choose something, choose it entirely. If you change your mind, accept the change entirely. Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart.