Poised just at the brink of rock face that dropped sharply away below me, I stalled on my mountain bike, wondering how I was going to get up the courage to ride down it, and once I did, whether I would make it down without major spine or neck injuries, and if I didn’t, how I would explain to my wife why it seemed like a good idea. The problem was, paused right there between going and not going was probably the worst point to be making the decision to go down or not. First, I wasn’t in the position I would have needed to be in to make the descent (rear end needs to be way off the back of the saddle). Second, starting the descent from a standstill, any little nervous twitch of the brakes could send me endoing face first off the drop.
So, I decided to rewind. I backed up a good 10 or 15 yards from the drop off, thought about it for a second, then took off for the edge. Just as I was approaching the brink, I wondered if it was a good idea, but I knew by then it was too late. I had committed already, and willy-nilly I was going down that rock.
What does it mean that I had committed? It means that I had previously decided to go through with it, but more than that, it means I had in essence tied my hands (by riding with some speed) to prevent myself from reneging on my decision if at some point it started to look less like a good idea.
Why would tying your own hands ever be a good idea? Why commit to something and thereby lose the freedom and flexibility to make a different choice down the road? Isn’t it always better to keep your options open? The answer, oddly enough, is no. Some economist friends of mine have thought a lot about this question, so I’m going to steal some of their ideas, and mingle them with another great thinker’s.
As far as I can tell, there are two basic situations where the answer to “should I commit?” is “yes,” or in other words, tying your hands is a good idea. The first is when for whatever reason you are much better suited to make the “right” decision now than you might be later on down the road. On my bike, I knew that at the brink I was likely to be overcome by an irrational fear of hurtling down a steep rock face, and therefore I was much more likely to make the “correct” decision of whether to go for it or not from the more removed vantage point of a few meters back.
The second basic situation is when you are making a plan with another person (or persons) that will make you both better off if you go through with it, but would leave one of you much worse off if the other reneged down the line. Like a classic prisoners’ dilemma, or, say, a marriage. Without the possibility of committing, two people thinking about such an arrangement would know that down the line one or the other is going to find jumping ship better than staying with it, leaving the other worse off than if they had never gotten into it in the first place. So by thinking they are “keeping their options open” in not committing, they are actually shutting down an possibility that would make both of them better off.
I believe that one reason God wants us to worship Him and live our faith as part of a religious community (as opposed to, say, on my own out on my mountain bike as I might do otherwise) is precisely because of the opportunity it gives us to commit to living our faith. By investing in relationships with others at church and publicly promising to live my life a certain way, I’ve committed, because now there’s an immediate and salient cost to straying off the path.
Sometimes it seems like commitment is more and more something that people try to avoid like the plague (exhibit A: rising age at first marriage). They shouldn’t, though. The most important things in life–for me, my family and my faith–would have no chance without it.