Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trust: Treading Water in the Deep

Philosophy: This week I read Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness." As philifesophical serendipity would have it, he has a whole chapter on bad faith, i.e., lying to ourselves.

Life: Lately, I've been listening to Radiolab's podcasts. With some sifting through their shows, I picked this really interesting one on deception to listen to a couple of days ago. I liked the segment on catching liars by noticing micro-facial expressions, and the last piece on self-deception (ahem, little bits of delusion) and how it might relate to personal successes. It actually reminded me of my blog post on Heroic Imaginings and Reality Checks. The middle story about Hope, the charming pathological liar, was fascinating, but it also made me sad to think about the people who trusted and supported her, and how they have struggled to trust people after all of her scams. It's not just that they can't trust others as they might have before, but that they no longer trust their own judgment of people's characters.

This podcast led into numerous conversations with friends about deception and trust, and in these conversations I felt a slight lingering of something weird come up within myself. For a while now I've left open the possibility that I myself am not a good judge of character, even though I would really like to think that I am (more on this second piece in a minute). I haven't slipped into any extreme forms of paranoia or anything, but through numerous experiences I guess, I have a heightened sensitivity to the ways that others can try to hide themselves, their intentions, manipulate situations, control another's emotions or reactions, placate, appease, etc... Perhaps more than usual, over the past year I have remained quite attentive to my doubts and worries over what other people were saying, doing, showing me, and thanks to that attentiveness, I have really worked on putting more energy into trusting people. I guess this is one reason why the vulnerability stuff from my last post speaks to me--trusting others is something I have to consciously work on.

So, to begin, we can wonder why people like me would want to be a good judge of character. I imagine it has something to do with not getting hurt, used, or disrespected. In other words, if you know that someone is a jerk, you know what to expect of them. But if someone seems nice, respectful, admirable even, like someone on whom you can depend, or with whom you can share yourself, to suddenly realize that that trust was misplaced might leave one feeling shocked, betrayed, insecure. That makes some sense, right?

This image came to mind: Meeting someone is like getting into a pool. Once you're in, you know that you're in the pool, but it's not the pool itself that can raise unsettling feelings. It's the depth that matters. I like swimming in pools when I know where the bottom is, when I can touch it with my toes. There's a certain lightness and ease that comes with being in the shallow end, like when you're only in 3 feet of water and you know that it's not going to go any deeper, but I tend to like swimming best when there's a little more depth, more room to explore. Eight feet deep means that the water is over my head if I try to get to the bottom of the pool, but I can still see it from the surface of the water.

But what happens when you get into a pool and realize that it's a pretty deep one and you can't see the bottom? Maybe it's 25 feet deep, or maybe even be more, but now it might be hard to even imagine how deep it actually goes. You can't see the bottom and you don't know what else might be lurking beneath you in the depths of this pool. There's an uneasiness attached to not knowing what surrounds you, what might come up, and that you don't have a bottom surface to ground you. What's worse, imagine that you got into this pool thinking it was six feet deep only to realize once you got in that you couldn't put your foot down and touch the bottom even if you held your breath and tried. This one's deeper that you had anticipated.

So what do you do?

Well, when you find yourself in water that is too deep for you to stand in, you have to tread. In other words, you have to learn to support yourself without having any ground to support you. It requires some skill, rhythm, breathing, technique, and if you do it well, you can tread water for quite a long time. Regardless of whether it's 10 feet or 100 feet of water that you're in, if you can tread, it all feels the same: just water passing around your feet and through your toes. It doesn't really matter where the bottom is.

I think that people can be thought of like pools. Some are shallow, some are deep, and perhaps most people don't even really know the reaches of their depth. Most people probably don't know what you might find in the deepest waters either. If it's the case that people don't know their depth, it's probably not reasonable to expect that they could reveal this to another person("Hi. I'm about 12 feet deep."), let alone expect oneself to be able to see the true measure of their depth by way of our own judgment or perception.

What this metaphor reveals, I think, is that requiring that one have "an accurate judge of character" before placing trust in another person might be missing the point. On one level, if I actually knew your depth and could see the bottom of your pool with clarity, if this constitutes my ability to judge your character, then it wouldn't really be my *trust* that I was giving you. Presumably, I would already seem to *know* you, and there would be less a sense of vulnerability, which is part of what it means to truly trust another. If I proceed in this way and think that I have trusted you, I have done so all in bad faith. I have fooled myself into thinking that I can trust you so that I feel like I do trust you. But already I have canceled out the very possibility for truly trusting.

And on another level, if one's depth and whatever might be lurking down there are some of those things that many people don't even know about themselves, this doesn't mean that we can't still swim in their pools and enjoy it. For the most part, I would like to believe, people do the best that they can, even when they don't know the measure of their depth. In order to make all of this less scary, then, one just needs to learn how to tread on her own so that she can swim, regardless of any pool's (known or unknown) depth.


  1. I'd love to talk more with you about this. Call me if you find a moment! I'll try to do the same. xoxo!

  2. oh boy, there is so much i wish i could say about this one.........the loss of one's abilty to trust one's self is down right devastating. who or what can you trust when your faith in your own feelings and judgments are broken? It is no wonder that people cling to their beliefs/relationships in order to aviod this 'ulitmate' crisis of faith. glad to hear you are finally enjoying radiolab.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I 'm finding it a time when I can feel myself throwing up a wall, losing an inch of my ability to trust others due to a very recent instance of deception culminating the end of a very long & sustained interest in someone I gave one too many chances to. There is something to be said about giving second chances but as your pool analogy artfully suggests, if the pool is proved to be treacherous, don't go in, no matter how pretty the water on the surface looks like.

  4. I like what you said about trusting someone in bad faith. You can cover your bases and be protected from harm, but in doing so you would have denied that interconnectedness between us all, that universal fabric of human existence.

    To allow yourself to be vulnerable is to strengthen that connection, I think. For better or for worse. Ultimately the better, I feel, since this interconnectedness is an integral part of the human condition. To wall yourself off and to remove yourself from it is to cheat yourself of the richness of the life and existence that surrounds you.

    Yet, that is precisely what so many of us do. That may be why it can be so hard to trust again once we feel so unexpectedly betrayed. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. I think that it's very natural for us to try to avoid pain. I think that we eventually need to learn that pain isn't so bad. I mean, it certainly sucks, but we can survive it and learn to find love and joy once again. Through it all, we grow and learn from the experience.

    This is the stuff of life, and living without life is very close to nothing, at all.

    Jude's inability to make new friends keeps him from being hurt in the same way again, but even he sees the heavy cost of it. I believe that - though it may not be a conscious process - he will eventually learn to trust again once the burden of self-protection is too much for him to bear. It's an emotional reflex that he will learn to relax out of necessity.

    That's my current view of it, anyway.

  5. I've read only little about Sartre and his thoughts about existentialism. But I don't really like him. Maybe I rely more on psychology.. :D