Any unified relationship requires the ‘T’ word
Years ago, while earning my degree in Psychology, I ended up having to endure the Trust Fall test in a few team building and social psychology exercises. The test requires one person to stand in the middle of a circle of assumedly supportive and trustworthy team members. The middle person closes their eyes, crosses their arms across their chest and willingly leans back in a free fall in any direction they choose. The point of the exercise is to build trust, to trust that your team members will not let you fall. If your trust is warranted, then any direction you fall in, you can trust that someone in the circle will catch you. Of course, if no one catches you, the consequences will be extremely painful and perhaps physically damaging.
I was lousy at this exercise. Seconds after I leaned back, I would open my eyes, flail my arms and catch my balance amidst embarrassing giggles. No way was I going to endanger myself and rely on a group of people I barely knew. I never trusted anyone to catch me. I’ve always found pre-meditated trust exercises a bit ridiculous, especially those that require you to risk getting hurt in the process. Trust between people is not an easy thing to create simply with a set of instructions or via a single conversation. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I couldn’t let myself free fall in those circles is because I didn’t think the members of the circle had anything to lose if I accidently fell. There was nothing at stake for them. There was everything at stake for me.
Lately I’ve been reading the news about social politics and relationships between different races and different ethnic groups in the two countries I call home, America and Nigeria. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how trust works or doesn’t work in a nation made up of people from different cultures, people who clearly see the world through different perspectives and who may read both history and present happenings as though through completely different lenses. Beyond a cursory politesse of human decency between strangers, what makes people trust others? What builds trustworthy relationships that permit people to safely assume that others have their best interests in mind and would avoid causing them harm in any way at all possible costs? When I think about trust in my own relationships, I realize a few very important things I’ve learned the hard way.
One, trust is usually built in the context of shared experiences and shared lives, opportunities that foster learning about how the other sees, thinks, lives and understands the world. It is hard to build trust without crossing bridges to meet.
Two, real trust takes time to build. It seems dependent on both parties being invested in the relationship and both parties feeling there is something at stake if trust is broken. When I think about this in regard to nation building and sustaining, I realize that national unity would be virtually impossible if one group of people don’t believe that another group’s loss or pain has collective effects on the whole nation, and therefore, in a sense, becomes everyone’s loss or pain.
The same goes with our accomplishments and resources. This is one clear and simple reason why Donald Trump has been such a setback for America. As the leader of the country he does not believe that all Americans are equal and all Americans deserve the same benefits, respect, and treatment. He has basically encouraged the nation to continue to divide and separate along the same racial and social economic lines of its already painful history. This is what happens when a leader uses his administrative and public power social to pit particular groups of people over and against others in the same nation. History is replete with examples and with the consequences.
Three, trust between people usually assumes a common goal or belief in a shared story. There has to be some sense of “we are in this together” for people and parties to risk the vulnerability trust requires, and to be willingly to put their resources and abilities into sustaining the health of the relationship or group. This is true across the gamut of human engagement, from healthy personal relationships to successful professional work teams, to unified nations.
Trust requires openness to vulnerability and risk. It requires a certain willingness to let down one’s guard, and to suspend assumptions and prejudgments of others. So often, our lack of trust (and care) for those different from us stem from false narratives and prejudices passed down without question from one generation to another. “Those people who… (fill in the blank)” is often at the heart of what separates countrymen, cultures, and ethnic groups. Sometimes I believe we forget to make the connection between prejudice, ignorance, vulnerability and fear. I think behind the question of vulnerability in the face of distrust of others is a question about fear and what we long for.
When faced with difference that feels like a threat it would be telling to ask the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’ Because often the flipside of our fears reveals the things we desire and long for. Naming these things aloud can lead to more constructive conversations and relationships between people and groups and cultures. It can also lead to naming aloud the old stories we have heard and accepted about one another and highlight the value of taking the time to build and create new and better stories together. There is no unity without trust and there is no trust without a shared story that values all characters.