It was well known in my house growing up that if you did something to land yourself in trouble, the very worst thing you could do about it was: lie. It was not great if you accidentally broke Mom's favorite vase, Mom would be upset. It was even less great if you broke it while doing something like roller skating in the house, thus proving the need for a rule forbidding that exact activity. But if you fessed-up, the punishment was usually a fitting atonement, like cleaning up the mess and explaining the lesson you learned about never roller skating in the house again.
On the other hand, if you tried to cover it up (or lied when confronted), it was infinitely worse. Not only was the punishment more severe, but the consequences were much longer-lasting because lying is a betrayal of trust. And trust was the most valuable currency I, as a child, had with my parents. Trust purchased privacy, autonomy, and freedom. It was the difference between sleepovers and hang-outs with friends or coming directly home after school to extra inquiries about homework progress.
Despite its fundamental position in our household dynamic, we never talked directly about the thing itself. We did not discuss how trust is built or where it comes from or why it matters. I wouldn't have those kinds of conversations until well into adulthood. In my youth, I was left to work out the finer points myself through careful observation, trial and error.
This week I witnessed this same indirect exploration play-out in an otherwise enjoyable film. In Raya and the Last Dragon, the world is in turmoil and the tribal factions are in constant conflict. One faction leader has a dream of reuniting all the people, but is thwarted by betrayal. So this leader passes his vision for a united world on to his child (Raya) to fulfill.
Over the course of the story we learn what is preventing the humans from defeating the great evil plaguing the land. It turns out to be a general lack of trust. The humans cannot have a peaceful existence (or magical dragon friends) because they are deeply mistrustful of each other. And yet that distrust seems, for the most part, well-founded. There is frequent under-handedness and much settling of old scores.
It's not totally clear where the mistrust came from, but it seems ubiquitous. Even Raya executes her quest in secret, employing plenty of deception and thievery. So it was fairly unsurprising when she is also betrayed multiple times. What did surprise me was that Raya continued to extend offerings of trust to one particular betrayer, time after time, without any demonstrable reason to do so.
In the end, what saves humanity (and the dragons) is Raya and all the other trustworthy team players she befriended along the way, placing their collective fate entirely in the hands of that very same betrayer. The one character who chose betrayal at every available opportunity. Somehow, receiving all that undeserved trust causes the betrayer to undergo an abrupt turn of feeling and whole-heartedly trust everyone right back. We know this because the magic works, and the world is saved (and so are all the dragons).
But trust doesn't really work like that. You cannot simply will it into existence. You can’t slather someone who has proved themselves untrustworthy in so much trust that it somehow soaks in and imbues their inner most nature. Trust is a seed planted on faith that must be fed and watered by confirming acts of trustworthiness. Otherwise, it withers and dies.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the lesson is there. My takeaway is: when the parts that make up a whole do not trust each other, the whole cannot function. That makes sense to me in an embodied way. If I want to throw a really powerful punch, I need my whole body behind it. If I can’t trust that my legs will be there to support me, then I will avoid getting them involved and punch with only the strength in my arm, resulting in a far less powerful punch.
But waiting for that incongruence to resolve itself is asinine. If I’ve never tried working those two parts together before, it’s fine to dive right in and try it out. But if I cannot trust my legs will support me because they have failed me in the past, that’s an entirely different situation. I need to figure out where that mistrust comes from and resolve that before I can practice some different way of punching. Before all my parts can come together to work as a whole.
The same is true in community. Trust is a key component of all relationships everywhere. It is the glue that holds the very fabric of our society together. It’s the reason we have a (mostly) functional economy. And our lack of trust in each other is part of what holds us back from making greater strides as a national and global community.
Unlike in the movie, there is no magical orb that will inspire trust among all humans and fix the current woes of our world. There is a lot of history to work through and precedent to overcome. Many broken treaties between the US and all the first nations folks. Many false opportunities presented to people of color that turn out to be just more racism in disguise.
The good news is we don’t need to receive the trust of someone else before we can begin to build it. We can just act in a trustworthy manner. We can all just keep our word and show up fully and ask others to do the same. And gradually we can heal old wounds and build new alliances. Gradually our whole society can grow into something greater than the sum of our parts.
Trust is part emotion, part culmination of data, and part social contract. And like all the other panels that make up the quilt of how we relate to each other, it needs to be inspected and patched from time to time. It’s time to review how we give and receive trust, with whom, and why. Like love, it is a precious resource. We shouldn’t waste it or treat it with casual indifference. We should use it to become more deeply connected to ourselves and each other.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.