As Good as Your Word: Promises made to be kept

Promises and commitments are the outward signs of mutual trust between parties, a shared understanding, and a bargain to be upheld at each end. A contract, if you will, whether written and signed, or verbal and committed over a handshake, to terms large and detailed involving the exchange of vast sums of money, or as simple as a plan to meet for dinner a few days hence. Or a proposal of marriage with a smiling acceptance on the spot, of all that marriage entails.

We cannot know what the outcomes of such contracts can be until they have been made and the specified time elapsed, and the fulfillments honored or not. But if there is no trust at the outset, no sense of honor extended from the very first negotiations, that all parties involved can be “as good as their word,” such contracts are likely to fail.

In 1914, Shackleton and Aeneas Mackintosh had an agreement that the Scotsman would take charge of the ship Aurora and the Ross Sea Party to set up a line of depots from Cape Evans to the Beardmore Glacier in Antarctica. And since there could be no further communication once the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea Parties were at sea, the commitment must hold through all risk and travail, over the span of a year, bound only by a sense of duty and honor.

Both Parties, as it turned out, ran into overwhelming circumstances that irrevocably altered their plans. Shipwreck in the Weddell ice took the Endurance before her time. The Aurora, carried away by the ice, left a small party marooned at Cape Evans with barely enough to sustain themselves, let alone carry out their mission, to lay those depots on which Shackleton’s life would depend. (For the rest of the story, see Chapter Eight in “When Your Life Depends on It.”)

Neither party could know the fate of the other. The Ross Sea men, at enormous personal sacrifice, working in the field for nearly a year to fulfill their part of the bargain, had only their own sense of honor to drive them. But they did what they said they were going to do.

They were as good as their word. Are we?

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