The Oaths I Have Made (and Some I Have Broken)
Our individual lives can be measured in many ways. I often break down my life by age (teens, twenties, thirties), location (Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia), significant moments (graduation, marriage, divorce), and seminal albums (Fables of the Reconstruction, The Joshua Tree, Automatic for the People, OK Computer, Funeral). As I thought about this month’s theme, I realized I could also measure my life by the oaths I have made. I also realized that my record on those oaths is kind of spotty, though not unusual. Here in chronological order are the oaths I can remember taking throughout my life:
The Pledge of Allegiance
This is probably the first oath we all take in our lives. I can’t remember if it was in kindergarten or first grade when I first stood besides my desk and pledged allegiance to the flag. I honestly didn’t think too deeply about it, but what little kid does? The Pledge of Allegiance is more of a harmless ritual than a knowing oath to love our country. It is more of a concern for adults than it is for the kids that take the pledge each school day morning. The Pledge of Allegiance has been the subject of lawsuits brought by advocates for strict separation of church and state because of the two words “under God.” I am all for the separation of church and state, but these types of challenges seem to be petty. I didn’t think anything of those words during the years I spoke the pledge. I was more concerned with what I was having for lunch and what to do at recess. If anything, the Pledge would be more of a concern for children who are not citizens. Anyways, considering I am proud to be a United States citizen, I would put this oath in the category of upheld.
Verdict – Upheld
Vow to Never Smoke
As a child of the 1980s, the “Just Say No” campaigns were a constant in every elementary school I attended. Speakers would come to assemblies to talk about the dangers of cigarette smoking and taking drugs. At one particular assembly, there were pledge cards provided where one could vow to never smoke or do drugs. I signed one of those pledges when I was 10. My family is mostly non-smoking so I didn’t have any “I learned it from watching you” moments. However, from high school on I have had friends that smoke and occasionally, usually after I have had a large amount to drink, I will bum a cigarette from someone. I have smoked the total of two packs of cigarettes in my life and I would be happy to never have another cigarette in my lifetime. Still, the fact that I have smoked means I technically broke the pledge. In my defense, I was a minor when I entered into the contract and therefore it is unenforceable (just in case Nancy Reagan decides to sue all of us pledge breakers).
Verdict – Broken
In October 2000, three months after the two days of hell in Roanoke, Virginia otherwise known as the Virginia State Bar Examination and about a month after I found out I passed that grueling exam, I and the other members of the Fall 2000 new attorney class stood up and took an oath and acquired the suffix “Esq.” I haven’t really thought about that oath since mainly because I have had no occasion to follow or uphold it in the practice of law. At least I have kept myself out of trouble outside the practice of law and I have kept up with all my continuing legal education requirements even though most of those classes have no relation to what I do professionally.
Verdict – Upheld
During my marriage, I honored my vows and tried to be the best husband I could be. In hindsight I realize that I could have been a better partner to my ex-wife, but even if I had been perfect it would not have prevented divorce. In the end we both broke the vow of “death do us part,” though she technically broke it first. But if the marriage is already dead, can you really break that vow?
Verdict – Broken
Witness at a Hearing
For those of you that don’t know, my official job title is “investigator.” A few years ago I testified at an administrative disciplinary hearing that resulted from an investigation I conducted. It was a very unusual experience to be sworn in to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Especially since I am the one that usually has witnesses sworn in. My testimony took many hours of preparation. Not only did I have to remember all the steps I took in the investigation and the minute facts of what I uncovered, but I had to say those things the right way. I also had to prepare for an attorney to attack what I did and the conclusions I made. In the end, the hearing and my testimony went very well. What I took away from that experience was a new appreciation for what witnesses go through. It can be very stressful to tell the truth the right way.
Verdict – Upheld
Earlier this year I got the call to show up at the DC Courthouse for jury duty. DC residents get called in every two years or so and the first time I was called I actually survived the whole day without being selected for a jury pool. This time I did get called and worse yet was selected to serve on a six-person (and a couple of alternates) jury for a civil lawsuit. Most of us in the jury thought the experience was an inconvenience, though one that was our obligation as citizens (one juror was actually happy to be there). However, there was a juror that tried whatever he could to get removed from the jury during the first day of the trial. He was a medical student and serving on the jury was a major inconvenience for him. During our breaks he would call his wife and tell her about the case, which is in direct conflict with our instructions to not speak of the specifics of the case outside the jury. He also would claim that he had already come to a conclusion on the case even though we hadn’t heard all of the testimony. It was clear he was hoping that one of us would tell the judge that he was violating his oath and that he would be removed. It probably would have been my obligation to let the judge know, but I also didn’t want that little weasel to get out of his duty. If I had to serve, then so did he. By the second day of the trial he seemed to accept his fate and he even volunteered to serve as the foreperson. Sometimes it pays to not assist someone violating his or her oath even if you feel you might be obligated under your own oath to do so.
Verdict – Upheld
I don’t know if there is a grand conclusion to draw from the oaths I have taken. I have found that the oaths I have taken to honor an ideal or someone other than myself are more likely to be followed to the end. Maybe the bigger lesson is that breaking an oath to yourself can be the right thing to do. Or maybe we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves when we don’t live up to an ideal we have pledged to follow as long as we do right by each other.