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.
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.