The Value of Your Word
Recently, I broke a promise to a colleague and didn’t complete my part of a project on time. Now she says she can’t trust me anymore. I think she’s overreacting, especially because I told her the reasons I was late. What else can I do?
My 79-year-old mother received a letter from the Austrian Government a few weeks ago. You see, my mother, along with her family and many other Jews in Vienna, was forced to flee when the Nazis invaded in 1938. She was just 10 but she remembers clearly the name of the Nazi Commissar, Anton Kaiser, who stormed her family’s home and forced her father to sign over the deed to their apartment, her father’s life insurance policy, his business, and all his possessions. She remembers looking out the window and seeing her neighbors kneeled over on the ground. Unable to understand what she was seeing at the time, she later learned that the soldiers were forcing them to lick the sidewalk while urinating on them.
Fast forward to today and the letter…The Austrian government now acknowledges, 70 years later, that much of the art that hangs in their museums belongs to victims of the Holocaust. However, the government politely requests, as it has many times over the years when acknowledging that so much of what the government has today doesn’t actually belong to it, that my 79-year-old mother be patient while it sorts out “the logistics.” My mother has had one heart attack, one bout of cancer, and a host of other health problems. Many of her Holocaust survivor friends are sick or have died. Certainly, no one is left from her parents’ generation, whose homes, businesses, and all worldly goods were stolen. Many of that generation, if they escaped at all, died young--heartbroken, overworked, or both. My mother’s father, kicked out of his beloved Masonic Lodge for not paying his annual dues (his membership lapsed while he was in prison being beaten by the Nazis), emigrated to the U.S. but died at the age of 49, struggling to feed his family.
“Be patient.” “We’re trying.” “We’re doing the best we can.” How do you feel when you hear this from a company, a government agency, even a friend? It’s happened to you, no doubt. Your credit rating is wrong due to some technical glitch. You call to have it corrected. You go through all the proper channels but check a month later and your rating hasn’t inched up even a point. You call again. “It takes awhile,” you hear. You want to scream.
You are working on your computer and your internet connection goes down. You call your provider. The message says that if you have a problem, log onto the internet for help (which, of course, is a Catch 22 as this is the reason for your call to begin with) or hold for the next available assistant. The automated tape reminds you frequently that you have a choice of faster service by using the internet for assistance. By the time someone gets on the phone, you are ready to scream. You explain your problem and that you work from home so you need service as soon as possible. “Be patient.” “We’ll give you the first available appointment…next week.”
I’m sure you can imagine what it feels like for my mother and all the Jews of her generation to be told “be patient” at this point. Here’s why the Austrian government is stalling: Once my mother dies, the property and the life insurance reverts back to the Austrian government. There is no clause for survivors (my generation) to make a claim to our family’s property. “Be patient. “We’re doing the best we can” has a hollow ring to it.
Being impeccable with our words, making amends that are heartfelt—without excuses, without hedging our bets—constitutes the difference between a world of pain, grief, hurt, and suffering and a world filled with compassion, comfort, trust, and joy.
You are probably appalled at my mother’s story as I would be appalled at hearing many of your stories. But the question for all of us is, “Am I doing everything in my power to be trustworthy, to follow through with my commitments, to consider others’ feelings, to be fair and just?” If the answer is no, then make amends. Now. Today. Let’s not ask others to “be patient” while we gather our courage or heal our issues. We are only as good as our word. Let that word be trustworthy.