Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I was thinking about the concept of trust the other day.

There's a version of trust that has to do with whether I think you will do me any harm. I like to be able to walk around in a mall or a park any time of the day without worrying that someone will mug me. I certainly feel that way in my little town, even if I don't really know all the folks around me. But if I drive into the city, my level of trust towards strangers drops a little because I'm not quite so confident that there isn't a 'bad guy' in the crowd, or in the shadows.

There are places in the city where I'm quite sure my chances of walking around unscathed late at night are about nil. I would feel that no one automatically gets my trust in that situation - everyone is a potential threat. So this kind of 'trust' is about perceived risk of danger. Fortunately, I can almost always control this risk by making the choice whether or not to be someplace.

There's a non-violent form of this trust as well. For example, one wants to be able to trust friends and co-workers not cause unsolicited harm. It would be horrible to work in an environment where you felt at risk from malicious co-workers who could make life miserable, or even get you fired. But it happens. A lot.

Then there is the kind of trust that comes from what you could call Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I first heard this phrase in connection with the Cold War when I was a kid. The theory is that neither the US nor the USSR would start a war because the other side had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times over. It turns out that it worked. Some even feel the world is less stable today than it was during the Cold War because it was clear who the 'enemy' was, and you could feel fairly confident that no one was going to start anything, despite a lot of posturing and even a little pushing and shoving.

This is the same kind of trust you have when cops are patrolling a tough urban neighborhood. The bad guys have guns, and the cops have guns. In general it's better for everyone to not elevate a situation to gunfire.
Siblings often engage in MAD when they are young. "You tell on me and I'll tell on you" or something similar signifies an agreement to not engage their common enemy -- the parents.

Then there is the trust that one can nuture though what I call the Trust Spiral. It starts when one person make a commitment to another, then follows through on the commitment, and finally, ensures that both parties know the commitment was fulfilled. It usually starts off with something small, and each time a trust cycle is completed, the more risk the parties are willing to take (hence the spiral imagery, or even better, an ascending helix).

This is a very positive kind of trust. Parents figure out how much they can trust their kids with responsibility and kids figure out if the parents really do what they say. I think the depth and quality of the relationship between parents and kids is a function of how often they go around the Trust Spiral. Some kids and parents get alienated from each other because they quit making commitments and doing what it takes to follow through. Kids who don't develop that kind of relationship with their parents often find someone else to trust. Or they just 'drop out' and disconnect from society. These are the kids who go into a school with a gun and blow their classmates away.

The best kind of trust of all is when you know you have a friend who will protect you from harm. You grow up counting on your parents to behave this way. In the military, bonds often become so strong that one soldier will sacrifice himself to save his buddies. This goes way beyond the first case -- the "don't worry, I won't hurt you" kind of trust. This is "don't worry, I will protect you with my life." Even when you screw up. Over and over.