“Commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return.” — Peter Block
I was reminded of something interesting today. I was reminded that human beings are the only animals (in the entire animal kingdom) who can follow an outside pitch and an outside rhythm. For whatever reason, we are uniquely endowed with the capacity to sing, dance, and clap together as a group.
I was skeptical at first. Surely, there must be birds that can synchronize their movements. And yes, there are cockatoos who can mimic musical rhythm by moving up and down. And yes, there are talking parrots that can mimic speech (which replicates pitch in a way – but not in unison). And yes, there is a whole host of animals that move perfectly in synch with one another (think of schools of fish, flocks of birds, or running bison or antelope that turn almost in unison with one another). But these examples are largely instinctual and are set off by specific cues either from leaders or from environmental triggers. It is arguable — but generally agreed — that these movements are NOT the result of environmental learning — at least not the kind that is consciously directed — or motivated.
When put to the test — only human being are capable of consciously mimicking, voice, rhythm and movement from one to another. And this amazing fact had a decided impact on me.
As a metaphor for cooperation, collaboration, and community, there is nothing quite so powerful as singing, dancing, and clapping. There is buried in all that —the decisive action of commitment – that is, a willingness to be part of something with no expectation of return.
I am reminded of an improvisation exercise I did with small groups. This exercise was done in three parts.
In Part One, everyone repeats the same word – but not necessarily together. During this part, boredom sets in. People find it very difficult to continue because it is arbitrary and un-focused.
In Part Two, everyone covers their ears and says whatever they want — just as loudly as they want — without any regard for anyone else. In this case, people were pleasantly relieved of the earlier monotony, but here too it was difficult to continue since the “sounds” they were making were so arbitrary and un-focused.
Finally in Part Three, I had them to sing “Amazing Grace” — and harmonize in whatever way they wanted. And without fail, everyone was moved by the experience. The sense of freedom and participation which came out of their harmonizing was both startling and profound. Here there was a spiritual dimension captured by our ability to express ourselves from within a group.
Part One was unified expression. All the same. Impersonal. Part Two was diversified expression. Personally focused, but without cohesion. Part Three was cohesive, diversified, and personal. There was acceptance of both the individual and the group.
So what does that teach us about committment? Do we need some “expectation of return”? … I think not.
The simple joy of collaborating person-to-person in a context of equality and freedom is often enough. It’s the same fulfillment that comes from singing, dancing, and clapping — together. It’s easy to forget, but something unique and special resides within both the individual and the group.
So the next time you’re asked to make a commitment — see if you can make that promise with no expectation of return. Try putting that to the test and see what happens.
Thanks for listening!