When I resigned from crew this spring, I found myself with three extra hours in the day to do whatever I wanted. To fill the time, I did almost exactly what I did while competing: run, erg, and go to the gym. It appeared the only difference between pre- and post-crew life was I no longer had to commit to what I was doing. With crew, I had had to show accountability, make practice on time, and keep a routine. Without crew, I was accountable only to myself. A few weeks after resigning, I understood there was no difference between my pre-crew and my post-crew routine; that while both demonstrated accountability, neither demonstrated commitment. My mind and body had been in the boat, but my heart had not. Unless your heart is in something, you never can say you are committed.
I contrast the verb “commit” with the verb “resign.” A sign in the Rollins U.T. Bradley Boathouse displays a pyramid showing levels of dedication, capped by the phrase “I commit.” When you commit to a cause, you do more than put your time and effort into it. You put in your time, your effort, and your intent. With just the time and the effort and without the intent, your commitment becomes resignment. The difference between resignment and commitment is heart, and choosing to put your heart into what you do is the most important difference you can make.
My high school namesake, John Henry Cardinal Newman, also writes about the difference between resignment and commitment in his book An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. He describes resignment and commitment as two kinds of assent, or two ways of accepting a proposition as true. He calls resignment “notional assent,” where you accept something as true, but you keep it at arm’s length. You understand why it is true, and you could explain to somebody what it means in words, but your understanding it has little to no influence on your life or behavior. A good example would be someone who understands why recycling is good for the environment, but who lacks the motivation to separate their waste from their recyclables.
Writing on commitment, Newman refers to it as “real assent.” When you give real assent to a proposition, you believe it to be true, whether you understand it or not. An example would be a child who knows nothing about the science behind climate change, has never watched An Inconvenient Truth, but whose parents have told him climate change is bad, so he recycles because he believes it can help prevent it. The child cannot explain how recycling helps prevent climate change, but if asked why he thinks it does, he says simply, “My parents told me so.” The logic is missing, but the belief is there.
Newman recognizes both notional and real assent as important for accepting a truth. Notional assent requires understanding the logic behind a truth. People who notionally assent can satisfy their desire for a logical explanation of what they believe to be true. Whatever happens, they can rest assured their beliefs lie on a firmly logical foundation. Real assent, on the other hand, requires not rational logic, but a logic of its own. It seeks its logical basis in an emotion that moves people to accept as true what they do not fully understand, but even so, have the courage act on it. In this way, the weakest real assent is more powerful than any notional one, because any real assent inspires action. Further, every action real assent inspires only strengthens real assent already present. The call to action real assent demands distinguishes it from mere notional assent. For this reason, Newman considers real assent a technical term for another more readily understood term: belief.
But what makes for belief? Isn’t belief simply blind trust in something we don’t understand? Newman answers that while belief can be blind in the sense that we don’t understand something, belief sees more clearly with the heart that understands truth in love. Through belief, we see the love of a person whom we trust, and we listen to what they have to write and what they have to say because we have faith that person will tell us the truth. What’s more, because we love that person, we not only listen; we also do what they say. So a child listens to her parents and does what they say not because she understands them, but because she loves them.
When I resigned from crew this spring, I had felt overwhelmed. I knew the logic for why I should stay resigned to it, but I never thought to myself why I should stay committed to it—maybe really commit to it for the first time. I chose to resign because I forgot my love for the sport, and I confused forgetting that love for not having it at all. But what do you do when you forget why you do the right thing? You do it anyway, is the answer I should have given. But I resigned when I should have committed, and what I learned was the difference. If I had a second chance, I would do it different. Not resign, but instead, commit. And you probably are wondering, "Would he really?” And I would say, “You better believe it.”