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The Freedom to Commit

by Bret Bicoy, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation

The Celebration of Giving is a free, annual community luncheon that honors the great philanthropists of Door County. As president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation, I offer the event’s closing comments and summarize the lessons we can draw from the honorees’ lifetime of service.

The 2019 Philanthropists of the Year are Mike and Marge McCoy, who have always been passionate about philanthropy, both as volunteers and benefactors. Their civic and community service was celebrated in Iowa and Minnesota, and they continued their giving tradition when they retired to Door County. Through organizations such as Bethany Lutheran Church, the Crime Prevention Foundation, the Door County Land Trust, Northern Sky Theater, United Way and the Door County Community Foundation itself, the McCoys’ wise counsel, tireless volunteerism and abundant generosity have touched many lives in our community.

During the weeks leading up to the luncheon, I spoke with people who know the McCoys well and listened for common themes. The word people used to describe Marge and Mike more than any other was “commitment.” They don’t do anything halfway.

Whether it’s traveling long distances to spend time with family or diving headlong into a fundraising campaign for a favorite charity, the McCoys fully commit themselves to the people and things they love. And the depth and authenticity of their personal commitments inspire others to join them.

These days, when we talk about commitment, we tend to refer to it as the terms of a contract, as in, “I’m legally committed to do this.” Yet when we anchor our definition in the context of a contract, we diminish the very spirit that makes a commitment unique.

A person negotiating a contract seeks to balance the costs and benefits of a relationship: You give me this; I give you that. At its best, a contract is a fair and equitable exchange that serves both your interests and those of the other party.

But author and New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that a commitment is far more than that: It’s a promise made from love. At its best then, a commitment is an obligation willingly made to another without any expectation of compensation in return.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former spiritual head of the largest synagogue in the UK, goes even further than Brooks to say that a commitment is a covenant. A contract can benefit you, but only a commitment has the power to transform you.

When we commit ourselves to someone or something we love beyond ourselves, we discover that it’s almost as if we’re serving a part of ourselves – that carrying the mantle of responsibility for the people and places we love doesn’t weigh us down, but rather, it gives our life meaning and purpose.

Brooks says that the best life is lived by those who make voluntary commitments, then fulfill them. That is, we are our best selves when we make a promise to another and then remain faithful to that promise.

As one person who knows the McCoys well told me, “They don’t do things for recognition. They don’t even do it for self-satisfaction. They do things because they’ve made a commitment, and it needs to be done.”

In this life, we have been blessed with remarkable freedom, and its value is not that it frees us from obligation. Its blessing is that it frees us to choose for ourselves that which we will love and to fully commit ourselves to it.

There’s an old Tibetan saying that the Dalai Lama is fond of quoting: “Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” 

We who are at home here in Door County celebrate Marge and Mike McCoy not because of the boards they’ve served on or the money they’ve given away. We celebrate the McCoys because of the commitments they’ve made. Through their actions, they’ve said, “Door County is our home.” They’ve found the parts of it they love the most, and they’ve accepted the responsibility of making those parts stronger.

The best way we can celebrate Mike and Marge McCoy is to learn from and follow their fine example: Find a part of Door County that you care deeply about. Then willingly make your own commitment to make it better.

Contact Bret Bicoy at [email protected]

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