The Endless Vows, by Mark Nepo

Four statements to transform your life

There are four vows we can practice in any given moment that will return us to what matters, that will return us to ourselves and each other. They are simple and always in reach, though they require everything from us. They are the utterances: help, thank you, I’m sorry, and I love you.

These are the most reliable doorways for being fully here. Each requires courage and vulnerability. Once truly entering these vows, we are never the same. Help acknowledges that we can’t make it alone, that life depends on the web of relationship. Thank you renews wonder through the lens of gratitude. It returns us to how rare it is to be here at all. I’m sorry accepts our humanness and makes all repair possible. And I love you is the synapse between all life.

No one can live without these avenues of authentic connection, though pride and fear keep us from them constantly. As if admitting we need help is some kind of failure. As if saying thank you incurs some debt. As if saying I love you leaves us forever at the mercy of those we love. As if saying I’m sorry exposes our flaws.


As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.

—Audrey Hepburn

There are always two sides to the bridge we call help: the calling out and the lifting up. Sooner or later, everyone will know both sides of this bridge. Crossing the bridge of help is what lets us know we are not alone. As British actress Lily Collins says, “Asking for help is never a sign of weakness. It’s one of the bravest things you can do. And it can save your life.”

To ask for help, we have to admit that we need others, that we are more interdependent than independent. To offer help exercises the heart and lets generosity flow through our being. At the deepest level, to ask for help and to give it opens a timeless synapse for life-force to move between us.

From the Egyptian slave who helped his other up from the mud, to those in the revolution bringing a chunk of bread to the fallen, to you holding me all those years ago when I was throwing up from chemo, to the out-of-work chef bringing the old painter meals on Sunday—such giving is the unbreakable synapse that keeps the Universe going. After falling down enough, we realize: this is our destiny, to charge with care across the gap between living things.

The act of help draws us further into living and, often, our innate kindness perceives the need before help is asked for. As we make our way in the world, we know when people are in need. When we let kindness be our guide, we show up with the lift of an arm or the opening of a door. Suddenly, we are beside someone who is broken, helping them pick up the pieces.

Yet to withhold help or to hesitate when it is needed is a passive form of cruelty. As Dante said, “He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it.” Though we resist, our unspoken covenant in our time on Earth is to help. As Muhammad Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

My grandfather Nehemiah, who came to America from Russia, was a gentle soul who became a letterpress printer in New York City, only to lose his job during the Great Depression. Even with little to eat, he’d bring strangers home for dinner. When Grandma would pull him aside with “We don’t have enough,” he’d kiss her cheek and say, “Break whatever we have in half. It will be enough.”

This brief saying during times of need has become a code to live by for me. When in pain, help. When unsure of your path, help by answering every need with care.

Thank You

Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.

—Melody Beattie

To say thank you stops everything. To say thank you unravels the tangles in our mind. To say thank you gives air to the wounds we carry in our heart. It is a simple mystery, a small act of acceptance that lets us be buoyed by the presence of all life. Much the way a raft carrying you can be lifted by the sea, and in that lift, you can briefly see Eternity.

It is particularly challenging to say thank you in the midst of difficulty. And though it’s hard to be grateful in the midst of suffering, I confess that, more often than not, I have been touched by gratitude later, once the suffering has passed. This is a deep reflection of faith: to be grateful for what might reveal itself later.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus said, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.” He suggested that there are three ingredients to happiness: friends, freedom, and the reflective life. He also believed that false beliefs create unnecessary pain. 

Practicing gratitude allows us to find wealth in what we have and saying thank you allows us to put down false beliefs. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh said, “When you arise in the morning, give thanks to the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.”

When we can’t find it in us to give thanks, it is a sign that we are blocked from our reverence for life. Rather than judge ourselves, we are being called to identify the blockage, to part whatever veils have come between us and life, and to reconnect with life directly. The antidote to ingratitude is kneeling to drink from the river of life one more time.

I remember a dark passage in my cancer journey. There seemed no way out. I was teetering between life and death, in the hospital, in a room with three other tenuous souls. It was just before dawn. They were asleep. I was terrified of what might happen next. Would this be my last week, my last day, my last hour? The sun began to rise and slip through the metal blinds. A bright, irrepressible ray spilled across their faces and then, onto the chrome sidebar of my bed. I briefly saw myself in the illuminated chrome. The brightness of this day yet to happen gave my face an aura. I was given a glimpse of my quivering soul and knew it was with me always. I began to cry softly in gratitude. For in that moment, before the day began, before my other suffering angels would wake, I was quietly more alive than I had ever been. It was a good day to die, even a better day to live. I gave thanks. And the thanks was the golden thread I pulled that led me to tomorrow.

I’m Sorry

Sorry means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain as well as your own, and saying it means you take a share of it. And so it binds us together.

—Craig Silvey

Step nine of the Alcoholics Anonymous program (AA) is to “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” This is a profound instruction for everyone. For making amends acknowledges the truth of things. Once truth of our actions is acknowledged, growth and repair are possible.

Looking back, it is clear that causing injury and making amends is one of the oldest forms of falling down and getting up. As long as we resist saying we are sorry, we stay down and never get up. Saying we are sorry and, thereby, owning our actions and taking responsibility for the things we break, is the psychological equivalent of the moment a broken bone begins to heal. Without making amends, nothing can heal.

A stark example of this in my life was my mother. In the sixty-four years I knew her, I never heard her apologize for anything. More than how this lack of amends strained our relationship, it kept her forever in the simmer of undousable anger. For her anger covered up her hurt. And so, she forever bubbled and simmered, no matter where she was. This made it impossible to get close to her without getting burned.

In my own journey, I have been called to say I’m sorry countless times. One of the most difficult apologies was to my former wife upon leaving that marriage. Having survived cancer with her enormous help, I had to leave to live the one life I was given. It’s as if almost dying changed me into a sea creature and I couldn’t live on land anymore.

Even more humbling is that it doesn’t matter how long it takes for an apology to surface. The impact of making amends is always healing and restorative. Here are a few examples across history.

On January 25, 2011, the head of France’s national railway company (SNCF) made the company’s first formal public apology directly to Holocaust victims. The regrets came just a few months after survivors and their descendants threatened to block the company from signing contracts in the United States if it did not acknowledge its role in the shipping of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps and make amends.

Therefore, Guillaume Pepy, the company’s chairman, did as much during a ceremony at a railway station in Bobigny, a Paris suburb. He said, “In the name of SNCF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives.” The company deeded the station to local authorities to create a memorial to the twenty thousand Jews shipped from there to Nazi camps from 1943 to 1944.

Even though the company was forced to make this public apology and even though it took sixty-eight years for the apology to come, the power of this acknowledgment was meaningful in repairing some of the deep wounds that scar Europe.

Another example. In October 1992, 359 years after the insidious Inquisition made Galileo recant his views, Pope John Paul II accepted that Galileo was right in his declaration that the sun was the center of the solar system and not the Earth.

In 1632, Galileo was put on trial because his theories and publications contradicted what the Bible suggested. The Inquisition restricted Galileo from publishing his works and imprisoned him. The order was later changed to house arrest, which lasted eight years until his death in 1642 at the age of seventy-seven.

Centuries later, with a statement at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican officials formally closed a thirteen-year investigation into the Church’s condemnation of Galileo. Paul Cardinal Poupard, the head of the investigation, announced at the time, “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.”

And though it took 359 years and a thirteen-year investigation into the obvious, such amends made a difference in the alignment of truth.

One more example. In 1998, six descendants of the Sahtu Got’ine tribe from the northwestern United States made a pilgrimage of reparation. In the 1940s, their fathers, desperate for work, had hauled heavy loads of ore from the mines near their village to barges on the coast. Long after their fathers died of cancer, the tribe learned that the ore they had hauled was radioactive uranium, used to make the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fifty-three years later, this small group of elders made amends to the Japanese people for their part in their pain. When the descendants of those who had unwittingly helped make the bombs crossed the Pacific Ocean to say they were sorry, some part of the dead was put to rest, and a dark, callous part of the heart of humanity was reclaimed. Making amends, even for things we’re not aware of, can alleviate the suffering of what we are carrying.

The great twelfth-century rabbi and physician Maimonides held both parties responsible in the healing process of making amends. Maria Popova summarizes it this way:

Maimonides offers a very precise prescription. The wounder should make three earnest attempts at apology, showing both repentance and transformation—evidence that they are no longer the type of person who, in the same situation, would err in the same way; if after the third attempt they are still rebuffed by the wounded, then—and this is Maimonides’s brutal twist—the sin now belongs to the wounded for withholding forgiveness.

Like inhaling and exhaling, making amends requires both giving and receiving. Then, we can help each other up and move on.

I Love You

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.

—Lao Tzu

No phrase is more binding and uplifting than I love you. And no phrase is more inadequate, as it can only point to a vast depth of feeling that exists beneath all words. Yet, to say I love you and to hear I love you will stop us in our tracks and touch the very core of our heart, changing us forever.

For admitting that we love someone betroths us to that person. The word betroth, from the Middle English troth, means “to bind oneself to loyalty to the truth.” When making a vow of love, we are binding ourselves to loyalty to the truth of our kinship to the soul of another. When making a vow of love, we are saying that we and the other share a foundational ounce of being, that we are made of the same eternal stuff.

To say I love you and mean it—whether to a partner, friend, or family member—is to cast a lifeline that either of you can hold on to throughout your lives. When feeling shaky after falling down, we can steady ourselves and hoist ourselves up by taking hold of the lifeline of I love you.

Truly loving others over a lifetime creates a net of relationship that can’t be broken. It is that net that keeps us from oblivion. So, say I love you freely and mean it and you will be weaving a net of care that will catch most things that fall. And in waiting to hear I love you we can only be who we are and wait, the way buds wait for light to open them after rain. Give and wait, the two great imperatives that we are born with, the heart’s way of rotting and breaking ground.

Causing injury and making amends is one of the

oldest forms of falling down and getting up.

As long as we resist saying we are sorry, 

we stay down and never get up.

Questions to Walk With

In your journal, describe your most recent experience of the four endless vows. When did you last ask for help and what happened? When did you last say thank you and what happened? When did you last say I’m sorry and what happened? When did you last say I love you and what happened?

In conversation with a friend or loved one, discuss which of the four endless vows is most difficult for you to invoke and why. What can you do to be better at this? ◆

Reprinted by permission from Mark Nepo’s Falling Down and Getting Up (St. Martin’s Essentials, 2023).

This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola, COMFORT & JOY. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo is the author of twenty books including the #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening.