|Trust, respect, responsibility
||[Jun. 19th, 2008|12:17 am]
On a hot summer night when the humidity's jumped up, you can trust toads to come to the lily pond and trill loudly. It's their nature. I can trust the horses to eat hay and the red one to pester the palomino, and the palomino to nip the red one. I can trust wrens to scold if I get near their nest, and summer in Texas to be hot and gravity to slam me to the ground if I fall over something on the trail. I trust two plus two to equal four (in base ten, anyway) and the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle to equal the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
What about people? What does "trust" mean with people? There are lots of ideas about that. Most of us have experienced the unhappy result of misplaced trust: a friend we trusted to do something, or be someplace, or keep a secret...a seller we trusted to tell the truth about the house/car/other item we purchased...a relative we trusted to be on our side because blood is thicker than water, but who turned on us, who betrayed our trust. We've heard about others' experiences; we know about traitors, spies, moles, at every level from neighborhood gossips to international intrigue. And yet we must trust at least some people at least sometime, because it's impossible to check everything ourselves. Most of us, in fact, have to trust a lot of strangers--every time we buy food grown by people we don't know, transported by people we don't know, stacked in stores by people we don't know--every time we drive a car made by people we don't know, put into it fuel refined and shipped and sold by people we don't know, drive on roads full of people we don't know, stay in hotels, ride on public transportation--every day, we are trusting that those people did what they claimed to have done. And mostly they have, or we'd all be dead.
But not, always, on their own. Past history has shown repeatedly that many people, when they think they can get away with it, will cheat. Bridges have failed when contractors or subcontractors used substandard (and cheaper) materials. Planes have crashed because replacement parts weren't really new parts and someone put their own profit above the safety of those in the plane. Ancient texts report that putting chalk in the flour and (later) sand in the sugar were common cheats, and ancient advice to anyone heading for market was "Buyer beware."
So what can we trust people to be? People. We can trust them to be human, and to keep doing what they've done before. If someone cheats you once...you can trust them to cheat you again (and your best friend, and his best friend, and her best friend...) especially in similar circumstances. You can trust used car salesmen to forget to mention that a shiny low-mileage car was under water for a week. You can trust the fellow who sells you diamonds at a wonderful price to sell you zircons instead. You can expect the person with control issues to be overcontrolling; the person who whines to keep whining; the person who erupts in rage to keep erupting in rage. You can trust most people to consider their welfare before yours (there are delightful exceptions.) On the good side, those who make you feel better about yourself can be trusted to keep doing that. Someone who doesn't panic about a wasp in the kitchen can be trusted not to panic about a wasp in the playroom.
Most people are a mix of what most of us consider good and bad traits, with behaviors elicited by situations, not just principles. So most people can be trusted to be variable--to be, in some sense, un-trustworthy. Usually your neighbor is cheerful, helpful, a delight--but every once in a while, he or she is a sorehead. Your kid's teacher is usually positive, concerned, reasonable, understanding--but one time threw a complete fit and sent your kid to the principal's office for dropping a pencil. Someone who is usually cautious with money may make an obviously unwise (to you, to his/her banker) investment for reasons you can't understand. Moreover, what someone can be trusted to know, understand, or do, varies with age, education, ability. I trust our son to be honest with money (he's demonstrated that) but I do not trust him to drive a car (a skill he does not have and may never acquire, due to his disabilities.) I will trust an expert who has proven his/her expertise to me, with that person's field of expertise--but not out of it.
Respect is a different animal. Those who think every individual should be respected do not mean that every individual should be trusted (for any definition of trust.) There are different definitions of respect (including "admiration for" and "yielding to" but the one I'm using here is recognition of each person as that individual. It means regarding every human being as having innate rights, human rights, just for being human, and regardless of age, gender, race, religion, education, abilities, disabilities, etc. No one is a throwaway; no one is unimportant. Respect is not the same as liking, or agreeing with, or wanting to be friends with. An enemy deserves respect, in having his/her humanness recognized, even if we are facing each other with weapons. Respect is fundamental to representative governments: citizens must have the respect of the government, or the government won't let them participate and will not allow them to make choices.
With respect comes responsibility. If the individual is viewed as a powerless nonentity, then the individual has no (or limited) responsibility. No choice = no responsibility. Choice = responsibility. Thus babies are not responsible for how they're dressed: they can't yet dress themselves and have no choice. Adults, on the other hand, can choose, and thus are responsible for knowing how to dress. Respect opens the door to choice...it gives individuals the chance to show what they are...and makes responsibility possible. In parenting, teaching responsibility requires parents to respect children enough to allow them to make choices--and then to teach them how to accept responsibility for the results of those choices, good and bad. (Bad parenting can result in adults who don't take responsibility for any of their choices, or those who take responsibility for only the good outcomes, or only the bad outcomes.) Respect is also central to the formation of healthy boundaries, a clear understanding of who is responsible for what. (Example of confusion: "Don't make me hit you" is a sign that the speaker does not take responsibility for his/her own actions.)
As with all learning, example teaches better than talk or books. Humans are natural imitators. Parents who want children to learn respect for others must demonstrate that respect--for other adults and for the children. Parents who want children to learn to take responsibility must demonstrate that they themselves admit mistakes, apologize, make amends...and that they can recognize their own good decisions, and the outcomes of them as well. ("Consequences" is a term used too often to mean only bad consequences of wrong choices--not good consequences of good ones.)
Relationships--personal, business, political, social, religious--go better if all parties are able to face the reality of their individual selves and take responsibility for their own choices, and if they respect one another as individuals. Intractable problems arise when individuals shift responsibility for their acts onto others, or accept responsibility for the acts of others., or try to coerce others...all relationship problems resulting from from lack of respect for each individual's personal sovereignty.
So, back to trust. Too much trust makes us vulnerable to cheats and to those who are merely mistaken (it doesn't really matter whether the guy that tells you to turn left at the next traffic light when you should turn right is deliberately misleading you or just mistaken...the result for you is an unplanned detour.) A little skepticism is a good thing, especially with those you don't know. You can't trust everyone to know everything, or everyone to be perfectly honest (and how much do you really trust about yourself? Are you always even-tempered, always rational, always kind, always honest? Most of us would have to admit we're not.)
But respect--respect does not depend on trust, but on recognition of humanity, the human worth of every individual. (Respect does not negate the possibility of violence, of course: violence can be a situational response not related to failure to respect a subclass of humans. If you attack someone, and they bash you, it's not because you were black/white/male/female/foreign/whatever, but because you attacked them.)