In 1877 the historian John Russell Bartlett published Dictionary of Americanisms. One of his entries was, “Pinky—a common term in New York, especially among small children, who, when making a bargain with each other are accustomed to confirm it by interlocking the little finger of each other’s right hand and repeating . . .
Pinky, pinky bow-bell,
Whoever tells a lie
Will sink down to the bad place
And never rise up again.”
It’s the pinky promise. Apparently it crossed the great pond in an English folk rhyme that young boys would say to one another when they made a promise. They would link their pinkie fingers together and say . . .
Ring finger, blue bell
Tell a lie, go to hell.
—A History of Warwickshire, Samuel Timmins
A wedding wouldn’t be a wedding without the exchange of rings and a promise to be faithful. This passage from the Book of Ruth is often used in wedding vows.
Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.
—Ruth 1:16-17 NKJV
Most folk these days omit that last phrase about God bringing judgment on them for breaking their vow. The Pinkie Promise has been modernized too, removing the penalty for breaking a promise. It’s seems, in the contemporary world, we are reluctant to call down fire and brimstone upon ourselves. I suspect there were many broken vows in the Middle Ages, when serfs trembled in gothic cathedrals, and gazed in awe at gargoyles, and feared the clergy. Those folk lived with a certain sense of shame and doom. They believed they deserved to be punished for their sins. They were probably like us in their dishonesty, but they were different in their willingness to embrace judgment. We have evolved past that. We scorn judging one another and ourselves. Maybe we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
When Shakespeare penned, in Hamlet, to thine own self be true, the Middle Ages were done and the Renaissance was in full swing. A huge shift had taken place in western civilization. Human dignity was rising and the Age of Enlightenment was around the corner. By the Twentieth Century, true-to-self had evolved to what we call self-esteem.
Now, we are post-modern: mass media, mass commercialism, mass politics, mass think, globalism. To thine own self be true has become a permission for unrestrained passion with no fear of judgment from humankind or God. We are accepting, forgiving, understanding, and non-judgmental. But we are often unkind, and we lie . . . a lot!
Over twenty percent of us betray our lovers, at least forty percent of our marriages fail, and few of our close friendships last more than a half-decade. In 1940 twenty percent of high school students admitted to cheating on exams. In 2010 over 80 percent of students admitted to cheating. Surveys vary but by 2014 sexual assault statistics reveal: eleven percent of women were raped while in college, one in five women are raped in their lifetime, and forty-five percent experience some form of non-rape sexual violence. (U.S. Center for Disease Control statistics)
I want to be kind to folk and I want folk to be kind to me. But maybe a little shame is not such a bad thing. And maybe a little fear of judgment is not such a bad thing either. As a postmodern apocalypsephobe might say . . . “Not judging, just saying.”