Recently, I learned the Spanish word for “engaged” — comprometido. One of the things I like about studying another language is that it helps me to see my native tongue in a fresh way. Comprometido struck me in that it looked like the English word, “compromise.” Interesting.
In English, “engaged” can mean either “occupied with something” or “formally pledged to be married.” Comprometido, likewise in Spanish, can signify either of these. The etymology isn’t tricky — it means, literally, to promise together. Still, in English, it would sound harsh and perhaps insulting to describe a wedding engagement as a “compromise.”
Compromise can have positive or negative connotations. Sometimes it’s offered as the key to successful relationships, personal, professional, and political. It can suggest peace, harmony, resolution, and fairness. Other times, more often, perhaps, it sounds like the beginning of the end — weakness, disintegration, decay, and defeat. Everyone from Janis Joplin to LDS leader Thomas S. Monson has warned against compromise. Janis said, “Don’t compromise yourself; you are all you’ve got.” Monson admonished, “Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval.”
Ernest Holmes cautioned against it, too, writing, “Good never compromises with Its opposite.”
How did the idea of coming together in agreement develop this connotation of waffling dilution and unprincipled failure? Why should making a promise with another, a pact, mean anything like a lack of integrity?
No wonder we have such a hard time getting along. When compromise gets presented like the antithesis of courage, undermining one’s self. When the promise of togetherness sounds like a threat to individual Good. Yuck.
So, I’ve been thinking about compromise this week, reading the news with this in mind: Where’s the threat and what’s the promise?
The debt ceiling negotiations, of course, have everyone tearing their hair out. I get the conundrum. On one hand, it seems unwise and terribly shortsighted to compromise in a hostage situation (whether literal or, as in this case, metaphorical); conceding ground to those who act in bad faith might embolden them to continue to refuse to play by the rules. There’s a threat to our economy and to our international financial standing. From where I stand, it looks like a threat to democracy. At the same time, though, it does seem like some spirit of compromise — making promises together — is the only thing that’s ever going to heal our brokenhearted country. I don’t know how we get back to these promises, but it’s probably not by casting each other as our supervillain enemies.
I read several articles this week about America’s obsession with guns. In one, an assortment of people at a gun show were asked why they felt they needed an assault rifle; they all answered “protection.” Protection from others. When one is oriented like that, pretty much everyone and everything becomes a threat. The threat was manufactured to rationalize a promise made by those who want to sell more guns. It doesn’t seem to matter that the promise of protection is a false one, that it’s been demonstrated over and over that more guns don’t make us safer. The circular logic has become a circular firing squad. A threat to justify a promise to create more threat… And it’s utterly un-com-promising — constantly dividing us rather than drawing us together in any way. God help us.
A heartening piece this week was about Kirsten Neuschafer, this year’s winner of the Golden Globe Race — an around-the-world sailing competition. The contest is super-intense. Participants sail solo. They cannot stop at any ports or restock any supplies. They are allowed to use only technology that was available in 1968, when the competition began — no satellite-based navigation — and the yachts must meet certain historical specifications. Neuschafer was one of sixteen entrants, and the only woman. After eight months at sea, when she returned to Les Sables-d’Olonne, on the Atlantic coast of France, where the race begins and ends, she was fairly stunned that she had won. Her voyage had included several weeks stuck without wind in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and a time-consuming side-trip to rescue another racer who had lost his boat and was stranded on a life raft. Nevertheless, she persisted, and she triumphed. Any race has threats built into it — it’s the nature of competition and games, generally, that our fellow players are threats to our victory. In the case of extreme sports, one also wrestles with the environment and with oneself. I don’t expect that it’s accurate to say that Kirsten Neuschafer won because she rescued a competitor… But there’s something wonderful and perfect in the fact that she compromised her fastest possible time. She compromised her chance at winning in order to help someone else. There’s promise in that, for sure.
I can be as competitive as anyone else. I like to win. I like to be right. I’ve got strong opinions that I can hold onto like a Rottweiler. I’m scared, plenty, and a lot of the time my defenses make an even bigger mess of things. I’m no expert in compromise; most of us aren’t. Still, we all do it all the time.
Every relationship, every social contact, is a conversation and a compromise. Together, we live in what Andy Warhol called, “daisy chains of interactivity.” We are negotiating and accommodating constantly, our needs and theirs, my preferences and yours. And we can approach every interaction as a potential threat or as a potential to make a promise. Our engagement with Life Itself can be a threat or a promise.
When I think about it like that, I’m clear that I prefer promise. I do. I do.
I can’t wait to be with you this Sunday, May 21, 10:00am at Maple Street Dance Space. Our choir will be singing! XO, Drew
©2023 Drew Groves