Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

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The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

Permission to Speak: Dealing With Difficult Subjects

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There are things about which it is difficult to speak. Hurt feelings, loss, and embarrassment can fall into that category. We are afraid to be misunderstood. We are afraid that disapproval will follow. And so, too often, there is silence.

The person who knows just a bit about our circumstances might also hesitate. Perhaps she doesn’t want to embarrass us either. Perhaps she expects that we will give a signal, convey the need to speak if that is what we want. Perhaps it is thought to be all too personal, too painful, too uncomfortable.

Or maybe it is simply that with more knowledge of another’s pain there also comes unwanted responsibility to ameliorate it. And so, too often, there is silence.

Sometimes what is lacking is a sense of permission. That the other is open to opening a wound, showing a scar. That the other is not too squeamish, won’t be offended, won’t judge. That it won’t be a burden or an imposition. That there is time.

It is all very fragile. As if two people were trying to move as close as they can to each other without touching; fearing that to touch — to go too close — would somehow spoil it. It is between two and about “too.” Two people hesitating at the possibility of being “too” close. As James Baldwin said, it is the mistrust of contact that

…takes off the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

The ingredients for this delicate amalgamation can be named. The hope that the other will not be callous, belief that you will not be injured, need for consolation. And, naturally, something that caused the damage in the first place is also a required part of the equation. The thing about which words must be said. It is usually easier if that injury — that thing — came from the outside, not the person opposite you.

The 2011 movie,  Monsieur Lazhar, deals with just such a situation and the need to speak about it. Even more fragile and necessary because children are involved.

It is set in French Canada, where a class of 11 and 12-year-old students have suffered the loss of their teacher. A substitute is chosen, an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar.

The school doesn’t know quite how to handle things. The children’s room is painted a new color, the better to help them get over the loss; the better to distract them from their instructor’s death. A school psychologist meets with the kids in a group. The class does well academically, and yet…

There are signs of trouble. One boy remains aggressive. One girl who is not the object of his aggression is particularly angry with that boy. One student transfers out. Parents are bewildered. Something needs to be said, but no one senses the permission to say it. No one wishes to rock the boat since, on the surface, things seem back to “normal.”

Physical contact between teachers and students is verboten under the school rules, for fear that it will go too far. Thus, the setting lacks the comfort of both understanding speech and human touch. And so, too often, there is silence. What will Monsieur Lazhar, a man with his own pressing demons, do?

The movie is quiet and quite moving. It is sustained by an understated, gentle, hopeful possibility. The atmosphere is suspended. There is space for something to happen, something good that will help the healing. Courage is required on all sides.

If you are used to films about exteriors, you will be disappointed. This one is about interiors, what goes on inside of us and in the space between children and adults when the adults are as hesitant and injured as the children. If you need car chases and special effects and sex, it is not a picture for you. Monsieur Lazhar is a movie about children, but for adults. The English subtitles of this French language film are easy to follow.

If you are a survivor of loss (and who among us is not), there is something here for you. Not everything needs to be said. Sometimes a look or a touch is enough. But not everything just goes away without human consolation in the form of words.

We need to give ourselves and others the permission to speak. Otherwise there is emptiness, missed opportunity.

And so, too often, there is silence.