I had an interesting upbringing, I think. My family and extended family were a varied range of very wealthy to fairly average, which gave me a solid understanding of what life is like with an abundance of riches – both material and interpersonal – and the shortcomings of either side. When I was about 7 or 8, all I wanted was a horse. I was obsessed with horses and the fact that I grew up in a rural community where half of my friends lived on farms and owned a few horses themselves, made it all more frustrating. I battled to come to terms with the reality that the closest I might ever come to riding a majestic animal was trying to make my Labrador sit on him for more than two seconds before shrugging me off, giving me an unimpressed look and scoffing before walking away.
One particular family member of mine, my mom’s uncle, was an interesting part of my early developmental years. He was the mayor of the town, an avid businessman and politician, and made no qualms about the prestige he’d acquired throughout his years on this planet. His wife was equally driven and no-nonsense, but she baked and cooked like a pro and never failed to overindulge me with treats of every conceivable kind. They formed an integral part of my daily life and showed me what hard work can achieve.
One day, my parents had a braai and invited all our family from the area for a nice get-together. I was 8 years old and at that particular moment in time, I had very little on my mind aside from how badly I wanted a horse. That afternoon I wandered around the garden, caught up in my own thoughts while the rest of the family were relaxing under the trees, having a drink or two. I ended up drawing pictures of horses on the concrete with my chalk, oblivious of anything else until my great uncle called me over and asked what I was doing. I walked up to him and softly whispered that I am drawing a horse. He asked if I like horses and I said yes, I love them. At that moment in my life, I could not have been more passionate, more completely engulfed by my adoration and desire for my own horse. Which is why the next sentence out of his mouth hit me like a whirlwind. “Well, would you like to have a horse?” I was stunned. I stood frozen for a while there, trying to stop my jaw from falling to the floor. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I remember all this clearly because my dad had placed the family video camera in a corner at the start of the day, leaving it to record, lens fixed on the table where everyone was sitting. I remember, because I played that part of the video over and over, several times after that day, trying to make sense of what had happened.
I finally regained the ability to respond and nodded vigorously, in utter amazement. “Well then, I’ll get you a horse. No problem at all. My little girl wants a horse, she’s got it.” He carried on fueling the conversation, asking me what colour I’d like it to be and what I would name it. By the time our chat ended, he had mentioned the name of a friend of his who owns a few horses and said he’d go talk to him first thing Monday. I could not sleep that night. I was beyond excited. And so, Monday rolled around and I couldn’t wait to go and see my great uncle and ask him what the man had said, but I thought I’d wait and give him time to talk to him later in the day. Tuesday came around and I rushed to find him. With a giant smile on my face, I asked him what the man said. He briefly glanced down at me, half distracted, and said, “What man?” I realized I probably was being a bit vague, so I said ‘about the horse’. His reply? “What horse?”
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what my reaction was to that. This was the first time in my life that I was truly and utterly let down by someone, on a scale that left me completely devastated and questioning absolutely everything anyone said from then onward for a good while. I couldn’t understand how anyone could make a promise about something that meant so much, only to just forget it ever happened. In retrospect and, as I grew older, I realized that he had quite a few drinks that day and was just running his mouth, absentmindedly. Doing what many adults do when they see a kid looking sad: say or do something to make them feel better in that moment, because it’s just not cool seeing a child not smile (this was actually a thing with my family elders, children were there to bring happiness to their hearts, so it was very unacceptable to have the source of their happiness not be happy). He must have been pretty chuffed with himself that he managed to pull me out of my quiet retraction from the group and gave me a reason to smile again. I doubt he had any idea of the effect that decision had on the greater scale though.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I believe it’s a lesson we all need to be aware of in life. It took me several years of really trying to understand people before I could put it into perspective and understand that there was zero hurtful intention behind his actions. I tell you all this because the older you become, the more important it is to remember that your words may not mean much to you, but it could mean absolutely everything to someone else. Especially if that someone else is a child, or if the promise is something that they feel could change their lives in some way. We get so damn caught up in life, trying to process a hundred thoughts and tasks at once, that we make promises or say things without truly understanding the sincerity of our words versus the depth of the impact they make on those we say them to.
Ground rules? Never make a promise you don’t ever intend to keep. You might as well be planting a live bomb in their hearts. This goes from telling your child you’ll go to the movies and not going, and then repeatedly doing this, thinking it’s not a big deal. Maybe it isn’t to you, but it plants and grows a seed in that child’s mind that you are an unreliable person who doesn’t keep your word. Never abuse someone’s trust or use your words to gain favor or lighten up a situation temporarily, when it could actually have very far-reaching consequences. And never forget that it takes one bad move, however thoughtless and unintentional, to create a very permanent impression in someone’s mind. To this day, even though I know he was a man of many achievements and many other things come to mind when I think of him, a part of me has always seen him as the man who broke my heart and let me down when I was at my most vulnerable. You may never get another chance if you screw up this one.