Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reflections on trust and trustworthiness*

Have you ever told someone you do not trust them?

It is a very memorable moment and it comes only after years of resistance to the finality of such a judgement. You try and you try to forgive others when they let you down, even betray you because you are trying to “live and let live”….to “cut them some slack” (after all none of us is perfect! Right?) Sometimes people in positions of responsibility, your hockey coach, your scout/guide leader, your piano teacher, even your next door neighbour offer models that build a repertoire of experiences helping to shape your picture of what and whom you trust.

In a dysfunctional family, one is offered multiple occasions to test out the “trust” muscle, and by corollory, the “distrust” muscle. When you listen to words that you do not understand, even after you have asked for explanations and been told, “just because I say it is so” as the reason to trust, you learn that the first hurdle in establishing trust has been breached.

As a youth, you are, at least at first, hardly motivated by malice to undermine; rather you are curious, somewhat bold and courageous and filled to overflowing with questions….especially about questions you seem to need to ask. Questions like, “How does that happen?” when you mother tells you after school one day when you are twelve, “You are going to have a baby sister!” And when the answer comes like this, “When you are old enough I will tell you!” you immediately know enough to store the moment for future reference simply because it might be something you will really need to know someday in the future. (When there is never an offer of an answer, you know there was never any intention of answering, preferring to rely on the “street” to do your job of parenting.) Just a small example of how trust is eroded.

When you listen on Sunday’s to homilies that distort and even abort the letter and the spirit of the New Testament with moral imperatives that seem designed to establish and maintain control by the church and its clergy, even your body, as well as your mind and spirit rebel, and you begin to lost trust for the words spoken and for the person uttering them. A “black-and-white” world view of right and wrong at home reinforced by the same authoritarian view from the pulpit have an impact on one’s capacity for trust. This is especially true when you are learning that to many important questions most people, including your teachers, are honest enough to acknowledge uncertainty, doubt, ambivalence, and a shared curiosity.

When you test your mother who is smoking in the kitchen, pleading with her to stop when you are twelve, and she responds, “If God had not made tobacco, he would he would not have wanted us to smoke!” implying that God has sanctioned the behavioiur, you know immediately and implicitly  that there is no use arguing because you will not be heard, listened to and effectively respected. Just another moment when the pursuit of a conversation about something that seemed relatively significant at twelve was derailed by “imperium” a similar imperium that was pouring from the pulpit.

When you meet your family doctor on the main street while you are experiencing a dramatic and suffocating cold, and ask innocently what he might recommend, while you are still a university student, and, after mentioning some remedy, he blurts, “When are you going to decide what you want to be!? in a condemning and judgemental tone (remember that “imperium”) you bristle with embarrassment and tension, as if your general arts program without a clear life flight path is inadequate, insufficient and, thereby, so are you in his view. Even then, I spent much time exploring my attitude to university lectures, in which professors (some not all) read musty and tattered lecture notes from decades of repetition, while others bought new insights seemingly each day to present to their students. Similarly, the larger questions  of where I felt most “at home” and what reading felt most challenging and interesting were always paramount, without seeming to have to foreclose on a single narrowing path, the kind obviously taken by this doctor and all others in his “orbit” if they were to earn his respect.
When your are called into the dean’s office because you have been reported “missing” from Zoology class by your professor while preparing to host the campus formal, and Dean Stiling comments, “You ran a helluva dance; now go  and make your peace with Dr. Battle.” (Her name is not a literary device for humour; ironically, it is her actual name!) At that moment, your capacity to trust, and to believe in the appropriate deployment of power and authority are restored, reclaimed and resurrected in a way that the long-deceased Dr. Stiling will never know.

Of course, there are multiple memories growing out of encounters with politicians, journalists, theologians, administrators and colleagues whose willingness to acknowledge vulnerability, and insecurity, a kind of innate unknowing as a core element of character seemed to be a kind of litmus test for trustworthiness, and for emulation and admiration. It did not seem to matter whether one was male or female, if there was evidence of openness and a moderated need for control (over matter, belief, or others) there seemed to be evidence, (inferred at least, if not full-blown) of humanity in a mature form. It was evident in the surgeon who, while closing a hernia operation commented, “My professor reminded us often, ‘You can insert the stitches but you cannot cure the patient’!” Its was evident in the pastoral counselling supervisor who remarked, when the anxious ‘apprentice’ noted that he had complete fewer hours than mandated by the curriculum fearing “failure” and removal from the program, “No one said you would ‘fail’ because you did not reach the exact number of hours.”

This continuing pattern of discernment and thereby finding a place in which one feels accepted, and worthy, and respected is one in which we are all engaged, some to a more energetic (and perhaps obsessive) degree than others. And our chosen signals, while different for each of us, continue to be tested, whether we are conscious of our hard-wiring for the testing or not. Not only is “the other” being tested, but so too are we testing our own tolerance for how we are being treated. If we are more willing to let go and to let live with some people, we know (at least cognitively, if not emotionally) that we will enjoy a much more fruitful and engaging relationship with those people than with those for whom our nerves and our muscles and our blood vessels constrict when we are in their presence.

Even people who function in our lives as plumbers, electricians, drywall installers, mechanics, and of course co-workers are all within range of our physical as well as our emotional and spiritual, ethical and moral “eyes” (read perceptions). And correspondingly, we also know that our perceptions help to shape how the other is perceived, as to whether their sense of emotional security/insecurity seems to indicate their own searching path, and the degree to which their search is founded on confidence or a false modesty that seems to block their path to the confidence they so desperately seek.

For false modesty too is another of those two-edged swords on which we can all become impaled. We know that modesty is more socially acceptable than a raging confidence or arrogance (and in Canada, too often we fail to make the distinction, hiding unconsciously behind our “national archetype” of the “nice guy”). We also know that, in a moment of encounter, without time for reflection, we very often veer toward taking the “modesty” path so that others will find us acceptable. Yet if we were really honest with ourselves, we would know that, for most adults, the other is quite capable of seeing right through our mask of false modesty as a sign of the importance of the “mask” covering for the empty or hollow ego. And herein lies another of those ‘barometric mercury levels” that indicate a change in the “weather” of the interpretation of how this person is likely to be in our experience.

And, once again, if we think or believe that the other is masking his or her insecurity with something that has the scent of falseness, whether that falseness is bravado or extreme modesty, we often withdraw, not “trusting” whether we will be permitted authentic encounters.

In one of many previous lives, a therapist gently nudged my “I do not trust” phrase toward, “I can and do trust” that the other person will do X, rather than that they will NOT do X. Re-framing my own perception of “trust” into a positive mode strengthened my own sense of myself, and my trust in my own intuition and sensibilities. I still revert to my original “do not trust” especially when I am especially exercised, anxious or angry.

I was accosted by a former colleague, a former supervisor, who had learned from scuttlebutt that I was unhappy with him and he opened with “I will counter each and every argument you want to make no matter how long it takes” to which I replied, without taking a breath, “For God’s sake, it is not about winning an argument, it is about trust and I do not trust you.” It was in that emotional state and sae conversation that I found myself having to confront not incidentally, his inappropriate and unprofessional (if not illegal) use of a clinical diagnosis in a reference for me. I expressed my deepest disappointment and even anger that, after nearly twenty years of loyal service under his supervision, he nevertheless had  “thrown me under the bus,” and when I added that a long-almost-forgotten incident in which he had betrayed my confidence also disappointed me, his rebuttal was, “That never happened!”
And at the core of our search for what we can and will trust, is a deity, a God in whatever form we have that reality conceived, whose fundamental nature is one we can and continue to believer we trust. Attendant to all faith pilgrimages is the notion that God is the most trustworthy, and trusting of entities. Comparably, humans generally fall short of that perfection, although our pursuit of such a high bar has both positive and potentially negative repercussions.

Trust is not attained merely through the literal keeping of one’s word or one’s oath, even if sworn on a holy book. While we all attempt to dot our “I’s” and cross our “t’s”, there are the inevitable occurances when we fail. And others too will occasionally ‘drop the ball’ on their literal commitments. However, it is in the larger picture, by which we lay the groundwork for both our own self-image and our respect for our circle of family, friends and even professional colleagues that we can be relied upon to “show up”….

And here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road: at the intersection of presence (showing up) and “trust”. I believe it is the Alcoholics Anonymous movement that reminds us that 90% of life is “showing up”. (This is highly reminiscent of the proverb that 90% of all communication is non-verbal.)

In even the most miniscule of human encounters, we are all able to discern whether or not the other person is “present” through eye contact, verbal responses and body language, for each of which there are gizillions of messages. It was T.S. Eliot who wrote that the “eyes” are the window on the soul of the person; it was also T.S Eliot who wrote that humans cannot tolerate too much “reality”. Our perceptions of showing up do not depend on the intellect of the other, nor on the economic or political status of the other, nor on the reputation or holiness of the other. Our expectations of ourselves, too, vary with the degree to which we perceive the other to have “shown up” in our space.

And if and when we are in a situation in which we feel we have shown up, while the other has only dipped his/her toe into the water of our encounter, we immediately shrivel ever so little. Everyone knows what this feels like. And if the pattern repeats itself with the same person(s), we are most likely to back away a little further each time.

Showing up takes courage; it also takes resilience and optimism and hope that the other will reciprocate. Repeated experiences in which we find others either showing up or failing to show up will engender a perception, and even potentially a belief, either that we are putting our signals with which others are uncomfortable or by which they are intimidated. At that point, we have a choice to make: we can amend our attitudes and behaviour (we cannot do the latter without altering the former) in order to better integrate our presence with the other’s. Or we can refuse to adjust and continue down a path that might eventually find us alone in a very dark place.

Whether or not we trust, and whether or not we are trusted, are two ends of the same equation or dynamic. And there are literally no formal lessons for developing our capacity to trust, nor for developing our capacity to be trustworthy.

And, after seven and a half decades of journeying along the pathway towards trusting, (and having such traumatic experiences in which we are neither trusted nor asked for “our side” of the story) we learn that compassion, respect, love and support are the only and the essential nourishment for an attitude that trusts and that can be trusted.


That is why I concur with Rabbi Heschel’s observation: When I was a young man, I admired those men who were clever; as an old man I admire those men who are compassionate. 

* Although most politicians leave us a little short on "trustworthiness" Trump is by far the least trustworthy political leader of my lifetime.

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