A single word, and one of the most loaded words in the English language, I think.
So I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. Ten for ten is the goal; I hit 50,000 words written nine years in a row, and have seven completed manuscripts and one hugely incomplete one to show for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it will take me one more NaNo of working on Book 8 before I can call it completed. It’s more or less a saga in and of itself. And if you don’t know what I write, it’s fantasy/science fiction. A lot of magic, a whole lot of action, and a few things about human nature, as described in action by people who are anything but human.
It’s one of those things that so many of my fellow Wrimos find themselves doing: write the story you wish you had available to read when you were a certain age. My saga is part-YA and part not really. Well, a lot of ‘not really’, considering some of the more questionable things that I’m now putting my characters through.
And I find that one of the emerging themes in my storyline is trust.
As I said before, one of the most loaded words in the English language.
So much of the human condition relies on trust, and both as an author and a lifelong student of practical psychology, I’m finding that more often than not, we already know who is trustworthy and who isn’t. As was the case with one of my best friends, I knew I could trust her right away. Yes, she and I disagree sometimes, and yes, we can be at loggerheads, but the fact remains that, no matter how we butt heads, I trust her. I knew that from the first chat we had. Her writing style, her choice of words, her choice of expressions, and yes, okay, the fact that her coffee habit can put mine to shame – all of that gave away little cues to her personality, and I knew immediately: we mesh. The other part of that was little more than instinct. Very frankly, I just knew. I can’t put it into any more detailed terms than that. I knew, and I knew I should. And it’s been a great time since.
I play on the themes of instinct and knowing what’s ahead a lot in my writing, sometimes fairly directly. In part, it’s part and parcel of writing fantasy. In another, it goes right back to human nature and basic behavioral psychology. You can call it the subconscious brain processing information faster than our conscious brain can get to it. You can call it the ‘sixth sense’ – not a term I’m fond of using, but whatever. But the fact of the matter is, you. always. know. Especially when it comes to trust. You just have to listen to that feeling, and that’s a lesson that most people learn the hard way.
Ever heard the saying that when something is too good to be true, it very likely is? There’s a reason for that. And that reason is that people generally go to great lengths for their own gain, with too many people being none the wiser. When someone puts on too much of an act of being a “good person” – pillar of the community, church every Sunday, the sort of a person whom everyone would say, “No nicer guy/girl than that exists!” – it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the opposite is true, in my book. You may think it cynical, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of it in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” very succinctly, when he has Sherlock Holmes explaining on why the countryside makes him uneasy:
There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.
But that, of course, was Victorian England. Hate to say it, but 21st Century USA isn’t that different. I find that the nicer the neighborhood, the more polished the person, the worse the vices underneath the gilded shell.
Again, this circles back to trust. You want to trust outside appearances. It’s our instinct to think that a bright, clean neighborhood and a bright, clean person are exactly as they appear. In truth, that’s precisely what the people who want to hide their vices are counting on. Appearances make for a very easy hiding of reality. You would truly be surprised at how well people hide who they are, and what they do, in order to get something.
Nonetheless, the human condition is to trust. We humans are pack animals, mostly; for all our quests for solitude and peace, we rely on people around us. Friends, for one. Family, whether or not that’s blood family, adopted family, or the family of choice. Even if we don’t rely on them for anything financial or material, we rely on them out of our own social nature. And we want to believe that we can trust the people around us. We want to believe that they have our best interests at heart.
And yes, oftentimes, that is the case. But there are also quite a lot of people who are able to fake an entire relationship if it means that they get something out of it.
Michael Baisden writes about this on a pretty regular basis. Here’s the thing: of all the people who make money off giving others advice, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he says. He’s not consistent in his messages, which only makes him human, but the absolute best and most consistent point that he always makes is make the person you’re with earn your trust. Don’t just give it to them immediately. Make them work to earn it, and take your sweet time with it. Forget emotions, forget being in love – use your brain and make the best decisions based on what you see for yourself.
I find myself in enthusiastic agreement with that. Trust is the number-one thing that we rely on. We place it in people every day, whether or not it’s new friends, old friends, coworkers, family members, you name it. We trust. Doesn’t it make sense to first see whether or not the person is worthy of trust? It does. But that’s the shit that takes time, and sometimes, though rarely, the person we aren’t sure whether or not we trust will go all-in in building it, and not giving you any reason to doubt.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people would get into any sort of a situation – workplace, relationship, you name it – where the other person in it just is not and never will act in their best interests. Oh, they do an excellent job of faking it; one may never even know. But it’s either the lack of follow-through, the continued infringement on your goodwill, the continued use of your money, the ongoing flaking out on plans, or the attempt to cover up wrongdoing or breaches of trust with gifts – this isn’t a pattern of behavior exclusive to romantic relationships. Yeah, you see it all the time when someone is a habitual cheater, but it applies to the workplaces too. To friendships. Family members. It’s very small things, if you take each individually, but altogether, it adds up to that famous Rhett Butler quote: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
My first job out of college comes to mind when I think of trusting the wrong people. Looking back now, I can bravely say that I put too much trust where it didn’t need to go. When I got hired, I was plunged into the work (administrative) with no basis. No support. No training. No consistency. No procedure, from the top down. Of course, this bred disorganization everywhere. Nearly every outburst from either ex-boss or the ex-managers about the general incompetence of the office – which, honestly, didn’t exist; all of us were wicked efficient at our jobs – was followed up with small rewards to tide it all over. “Take an early day, it’s fine”. Or “Let’s all go out for lunch, we need a break”. I repeatedly complained about having next to no help while swamped in peak season – instead of people hired, the first year I voiced a complaint, I got extra time off and $100 in cold cash. That’s nice, but it helped very little; I was still working insane hours, and the phone kept ringing in my sleep. When they did hire interns the following year, no one else had the time to train them because of when they were hired (peak season, again), which left yours truly training them. So yeah, this left me working four people’s jobs at once. I got a huge post-season bonus check that year. I also have a blank spot in my memory for the middle part of April of that year from the stress alone, though I clearly remember running away to Philly on April 6th to all but collapse on my friend’s shoulder in absolute exhaustion. Rewards-wise? I cleaned up like a bandit. I got extra time off, all paid for, in addition to the massive bonus. But… none of this fixed the underlying issues in the workplace. None whatsoever. That was why I quit: because I realized that none of this will change, and that it would eat me alive before I would see any improvement, and that, above all, I was never going to get paid what I’m truly worth.
And every time I complained, my then-boss would always promise something, and always say, “You can trust me.”
I did, and that was my mistake.
I thought that my then-boss would eventually give me a salary worth the work I was doing. It took me an inordinately long time to realize that it was never going to happen. More than one person in my life told me to walk out, that it wasn’t worth the toxic environment, and I’d vociferously defend staying there, because I’d keep getting the little rewards and mistook it to mean that the bigger rewards were coming. I realized it was never going to happen when I was offered shorter workweek rather than my annual raise. And in retrospect? All the signs were there, in front of my face. I just didn’t read them.
So why didn’t I quit before? Easy answer: fear, and mistakenly believing I couldn’t do better. I didn’t think I could get another job where I’d be paid as well. I worked my way to a certain amount of flex; I could travel, and was slowly entrenching myself in the music world. Boss also didn’t care that I had Photoshop on the work computer; hell, he had me do some graphics and marketing while I was at it. What got me to quit was the realization that nothing I did was ever going to be enough, and that no amount of ‘more effort’ was going to give me what I’m worth. It took me a long time to see that, and once I saw it, nothing could stop me from making a fast exit.
In truth, it’s the same structure as abusive relationships. The cycle is disturbingly similar. Why? Because you have hopes that the person you’re with will change for the better. That the intermittent rewards will become consistent. Very likely, before the abuse pattern begins, you have a certain halcyon period where they win your trust, and even sustain it for a while. And you begin to trust that they will work out whatever is wrong, and that it’ll be as good as it was before.
That’s actually 100% exactly what the other person is counting on. They know you trust them. And they exploit that without a second thought. Why? Because they benefit from your efforts.
In the example of my first job, I was a target, and it’s only now that I recognize that as such. I didn’t know that I could negotiate my job contract, and was afraid to be unemployed, because student loans. One of my ex-managers delighted in telling me that no one else would hire me because the job market was crap (and I did go on interviews multiple times) – I outlasted him by about two years. When I was hired, I was fresh out of college, with a degree I wasn’t using, and no work experience past my college front-desk job. At that time, I’d have gladly taken whatever I could get, and it showed. My former boss picked up on that immediately, and built my trust early on. It’s a huge, massive part of what kept me working there even when it was clear to everyone else that it wasn’t ever going to be what I wanted.
In a typical abusive relationship cycle, all the Well-Meaning Wilmas, as I call them, always ask, “But why did they stay in the relationship?” The truth is, the answers are very similar to the reasoning I had to staying at my first workplace. “I thought I couldn’t do any better”. “I would have no money otherwise”. “I wanted to keep the kids safe”. Because the other person won their trust and bamboozled them into believing that yes, eventually it will be all good all the time. That it does get better. That if there’s just a little more X, a little less Y – whatever X and Y happen to be – then everything will be okay.
It goes back to Issendai of Livejournal and the brilliant post on sick systems. Seriously, read that. It has to be one of the most brilliant pieces of writing you can ever have on this subject.
And you know something? Building a sick system, and keeping a sick system going relies on – primarily – trust.
One part of that blog post that I can echo and confirm is that intermittent rewards are the most addictive kind there is. That, which relies on and results in winning someone’s trust, is usually all some people need.
And you can ask, “If this is what people do to us, why do we trust in the first place?” We need to. It’s human. It’s part and parcel of who we are.
But let’s come back to instinct for a moment. You know, the gut feeling that everyone tells you to listen to. The one that we all ignore in favor of thinking that maybe, just maybe, it’ll change when…
One of the things that Michael Baisden said once that I really resonated with was, “If you’re asking whether or not you trust someone, you already know you don’t.” I find that to be a very true statement. And there are quite a lot of people out there who would go to great lengths to make sure you never have to question their trust. They will tell you whatever it is they think you want to hear – often on target, especially if they had some time in getting to know you – to make sure you never question their motivations. If there’s enough trust exchanged between you and that person, you probably will never question whether or not you trust them – until something happens that will make you question it. And that’s when it’s gone for good.
I’m not an advocate of snooping. I understand why people do that, but it’s the fastest way to wreck trust. This applies to any situation. The minute that you start going through someone’s things or communications, whatever trust that there was evaporates, on both sides. Even if you find nothing incriminating, you already know you don’t trust the person. And should they ever find out you’re snooping, will they ever trust you again? Of course not. Never.
Trust is something we can’t live without. Bottom line and bar none. We need people around us whom we can rely on, we need people around us who can and will and should tell us when we’re fucking up, and to help us un-fuck up if need be. But it one of the most absolutely fragile valuable things in the human spectrum. We don’t know what will break it; something done by that person, or information that comes to light elsewhere. We don’t know to which extent it will break: will it be a hairline crack, or a hit that’s strong enough to shatter it? Trust is such that once it breaks, getting it back is impossible. Sure, you can repair it. But think of it as the most valuable of Ming vases: it falls, it breaks. You can glue it back, you can even paint it over so that the design seems seamless on the outside once again. But will it ever be the same? No. And you will find that its value is hugely diminished once broken.
To circle back to my books for a moment, this is actually the biggest theme that I’m working with for the storyline that I picked for this year’s installment of the Origins arc of my series. Without so realizing, I’ve been taking one major theme in human nature per book and working the storyline around that theme.
So far, I’ve covered a lot of themes in my series: Book 1 was the more or less typical good vs. evil, where you actually question how ‘evil’ someone is and how much of their actions was really their own doing. Book 2 spoke about what happens under someone’s nose, and how long one can keep secrets for before they catch up to you. Book 3 analyzed just when something is not right, and when to walk away from it or to dig further at it. And Book 4 talked about finding answers and being very careful what you wish for, because you just might get it – and it’ll be a lot more than you can handle. The fifth book is about revenge and damage control alike, and the sixth is going to have a slant on how to manipulate public opinion to serve your own needs, and what happens when you go too far in your own agenda. Book 7 discusses protecting what’s truly yours, especially if it’s something you love. And Book 8 is an extrapolation on tenacity and perseverance.
So as such, Book 9 needs to discuss trust, and it needs to hit each and every single one of the points and events that I’ve described above, but not lose any of the action that I generally like my books to have. And the perfect character is Akarra, mother to Shourron I. I made the decision from the start of the story to put her through as much crap as one can possibly go through, and watch her outlook on life and the universe around her change. I put the character through a variety of twists and turns, few of them pleasant – I was bound to write an installment that’s a little “darker” than the others, looks like this is it – and my endeavor is to make people ask questions about whom to trust. Why. To which extent is a gut feeling correct? And so on. These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves in life; my job as an author is to make my characters – and readers – ask them.