Sunday, March 20, 2011

Blind trust

We went to see the play Enron last weekend at Folketeateret and found it to be quite good. It had a lot to say about the complexities and vagaries of the human condition and the destruction of trust, as well as about our capacity for blind trust—in our workplaces, workplace leaders, friends and colleagues. Not only did workplace leaders assume that those who worked for them were behaving ethically and correctly, more importantly, employees also trusted their bosses with their hard-earned pension money. We know the outcome—money lost forever, pensions gone, lying, cheating, criminal behavior, and finally, prison for those who were responsible for this huge fiasco. I left the theater with mixed feelings about what had happened and what I had seen, but mostly with feelings of sadness. I found it so hard to believe that the company Enron could have done this to its employees. I also found it hard to believe that bosses could shut their eyes to what they knew was criminal behavior on the part of their employees. Why did they do this? And why did employees generally have so much trust in their company? And if I look a bit further, Bernie Madoff comes to mind. How did he manage to swindle hard-working intelligent people out of their life savings? Didn’t any of them have suspicions and strange gut feelings about his ‘winning streak’? Do we really all believe in ‘money for nothing’? Is there such a thing as a ‘free ride’? On the way out of the theater, an elderly Norwegian woman started to talk to me, and when she found out I was American, she was very interested in my opinion about the play. She was adamant about how Norwegian companies and the government were just as corrupt as American companies and the American government. I wondered about this—how easy it was for her to say this—and I wondered if she was just saying it to make me feel better about American corporate culture. But she wasn’t. She had clear meanings about what was going on in Norway, and she made me realize that we take a lot for granted, especially when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to dig deeper to look under the surface—to see what is really going on. Why don’t we dig deeper more often?

I bring this up after a conversation with a good friend about trust. Her issues regarding trust are not workplace-related, but she pointed out something that is general to all situations that arise when trust gets broken. What precede the breakdown are often laziness and a failure to pay attention on our parts. She admitted that this was the case for her situation. When I look back at my own life, to my own personal situations where trust got broken, I have to admit it was the same for me. Either that or I wanted to ignore what was really going on, probably because I did not want to deal with the particular situation at that particular time. But I know now that postponing such things only leads to huge explosions and life-changing occurrences. And you cannot go backward after them. You cannot return to naiveté, however much you’d like to. Defenses get stripped away, delusions get smashed, illusions also, and finally dreams. Dreams that your life was going to be this or that way, dreams that you’d live happily ever after with a spouse, dreams that you’d be wealthy or successful, dreams that you’d be friends forever with certain people or even with your own family. It turned out that life had other plans. The vagaries of life and of the behavior of those we let into our life, change our lives. They affect our dreams. And ultimately they change our ways of looking at trust.

Some of my friendships go back a long way, back to my childhood or teenage years. My closest women friends are my oldest friends. I also count some of the women I met early in my work life as very close friends. I love them in a way I could never adequately explain. I just ‘know’ that they have been there, are there, and will always be there for me, and I for them. I trust them with my heart, because they’ve earned my trust, and I’ve earned theirs. We had so much time together when we were young that we were able to talk deeply and intimately about the things that mattered to us, but it was done in a very natural way. We met for coffee and cake at a favorite diner, we went away on short vacations during the summer, we went to rock clubs and concerts, or simply went shopping and then out to eat. It didn’t have to be dramatic, the things we did. We lived normal lives, were there for each other when crises hit, knew each other’s families and friends, got to know each other’s neighborhoods, and eventually got to know each other’s spouses and families. There is something immensely comforting about that as I grow older. Whenever life gets tough, I think about my friends and I know I will be ok once I’ve had a chance to chat with them. This doesn’t diminish the relationship I have with my husband. He hasn’t known me as long as my closest women friends have. It’s a different kind of relationship, even though friendship is involved. It’s not possible to completely explain what marriage means, but it involves an intimate bond of trust between two people. He is another type of support system for me, and sometimes his responses to my personal crises are quite different than how my women friends would respond. It’s healthy to experience this—a well-rounded response. But I could never imagine my life without my women friends. My life would be much poorer without them. So I don’t understand those who give up their friends or who downplay the importance of their friendships once they get married. The bond of trust in marriage can be broken, and it is more often broken compared to friendships. Spouses are not predictable. Love is not predictable. Romantic love dies and often causes chaos when it does. It is the latter, the loss of romantic love, that is perhaps the most common personal crisis that happens to many people. All of us have been through it, married or not. We trust another with our heart, and that other person breaks our heart. It seems as though our heart will never mend, but it does, just not in the way we often think. Afterward, we wonder why we trusted that person or what we saw in that person. We question our judgment—why did we trust that person when he or she really was unreliable, irresponsible, untrustworthy, lazy, flirtatious, unfaithful, or a myriad of other things. The answer is that we could not know the future, and that we made the decision to trust based on our feelings and rational thoughts at the moment we made the decision. Maybe we were too young when we made the decision. But we made the decision to take the leap into an unknown future. We do that as well when we choose to have children. We cannot know how their lives will turn out. We cannot know if the world as we know it will still be there for them. We cannot protect them from the future. We have only the ‘now’. So we trust (blindly) that things will work out for the best, and for the most part, they do. But the ‘best’ can be defined in many ways. And we are always honing that definition. Despite the crises that hit us at times, we come through them and life goes on. But it is when the crises of trust hit that we are shaken, hurt, blindsided, angry, bewildered and despairing. Could we have seen them coming? Did we see them coming and choose to ignore the signals? How much could we have done to prevent them? A lot of the anger we feel is toward ourselves—why didn’t we pay more attention, why didn’t we confront more, challenge more, share more? It is often said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Is becoming indifferent to a loved one or friend the beginning of the end of trust? When you no longer care to share yourself with a spouse or with a friend, or even with your children, you isolate yourself and pride can take root. Then we don’t always see what we should have seen, because we don’t ‘care’ anymore. But deep down maybe we still do.

All I know is that I have experienced losses of trust both personally and in my workplace during the past thirty years. They have been tough situations to navigate through. I don’t know if I did the best job with either one of them, but I emerged intact, if slightly the worse for wear. I would have preferred not to have experienced them, but they taught me valuable lessons. My eyes were opened. And they’ve stayed open. I don’t trust blindly anymore, at least not when faced with new people and new situations. I prefer to think of myself as healthily skeptical. I hope so, anyway. Christ said that we should be ‘ever vigilant’. I think I understand what that means now. We cannot be lazy. We cannot let others control us; we should not give others the capacity to own us completely, to destroy us, through their behavior and through our blind trust in them. It is true what has been said before, trust has to be earned. And it must continue to be earned, day in and day out. It cannot be taken for granted, and that is true for personal as well as workplace situations.  

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