In the early days of one of our operations, I asked an employee about the status of some backorders. “All good,” he replied without hesitation. “They’re on their way.” A few days later, I got a call asking about the orders. When I inquired again, he told me that they had not yet shipped, and that he was sorry for not being honest.
Trust is a fragile thing.
Our world is so very desperate for trust. We hunger for it. We need it. Without it, everything begins to break down. And yet, it seems really, really hard to find and even harder to maintain. We don’t trust our politicians. We don’t trust our lawyers. We don’t trust our lobbyists. We don’t trust our media. We don’t trust our corporations. We don’t trust those selling to us. Perhaps those are bad examples. We don’t trust our scientists. We don’t trust our churches. We don’t trust our advisors. We don’t trust our employers. More and more, we don’t trust our friends. Many of us don’t trust our families. And, many stopped trusting their ex-spouse long ago.
When was the last time you drove along a gravel road? Remember the feel of the rocks shifting under your tires? How about the dust? Gravel roads require us to drive more slowly, steer more carefully, and watch more closely. A quick turn-of-the-wheel or hard press on the accelerator might put us in the ditch. Such roads take us longer to navigate to any destination and often leave us tired and dirty. They demand careful attention as we might find ourselves losing control at any point along the way.
Such is the path of trust. Slow and steady gets us there but it takes time. Sudden, dramatic, moves can cause us to slide and if we get off the road, it can be hard, or even impossible, to get back on. Even after we’ve mastered the careful attention needed to maintain our course, we are still at risk of making a wrong move – even the most experienced slip from time to time. Sometimes we get lucky and the road is a bit more forgiving. But often, our own repeated mistakes make the road difficult to navigate and we ultimately find, there is no final arrival on this roadway – it goes on and on, in its own winding, shifting way.
Why on why is it so difficult? We know the answers: do what you say you’re going to do, be honest, show up, be sincere, do to others as you would have them do to you. But trust is also won and lost along the edges. Consider the subtleties involved in trust as it is built along the edges. We appreciate confident people until their confidence become haughtiness. We want to be on the side of the assertive until that assertiveness begins to bully us. We love enthusiasm until it turns to fanaticism. We want our leaders to be bold until their boldness turns to folly.
Trust is easy to understand in the obviousness of lying and betrayal. However, we spend most of our time trusting, and distrusting, along the edges of the virtues to which we are drawn until they become the vices that cause dislike and distrust. Here we find the limited traction of the gravel road as we slip along those edges, swerving in the dust, until we find the right speed, right rut, or right break in the cloud. Trust can be lost just as quickly in our indirect behaviors as it is in a direct betrayal or failure to show up.
How do we get anything done as we’re all cruising along on the shifting gravel trying to see through each other’s dust? Time is the two edged sword as it builds our confidence while creating a greater cliff along the edge of the road. There can be no trust without vulnerability. We navigate life by accepting degrees of risk and mitigating our exposure across differing levels of vulnerability: we aggregate our trust in a few places and invest ourselves accordingly. Yes, we are desperate for trust even as we battle the fears of our own vulnerability and potential for betrayal. It is the long gravel road.
And here lies the great opportunity. In a world of lies, deceptions, betrayals, and broken promises, each of us has the opportunity to stand apart. Our honesty. Our steadfastness. Our sincerity. Our fidelity. Our consistency. Our showing up. These are incredible gifts available for the giving. The truly amazing thing about each of them is that they multiply when they are given away, and, we have no shortage of them in our inventory.
We can also direct our other virtues in the same way by restraining them from their opposing vices. Our confidence inspires confidence. And trust. Our enthusiasm infects others with enthusiasm. And trust. Our boldness builds boldness in others. And trust. Yes, we’re still driving on the gravel but trust is also built along these edges with indirect subtlety. When others see that you can restrain, focus, and appropriately apply your strengths, they begin to trust. They begin to believe that they can count on you.
Alas, from time to time, we and those around us, will slip along the gravel road. Sometimes it’s just a little fish-tail. Other times, they or we, end up in the ditch. In all of our glorious intellect, social progress, and good intentions, we will still fail. We are made imperfectly. We are prone to brokenness and all of our virtues will tip to vices at one point or another. We will let each other down. When that happens, all we can do is say “I’m sorry” and try to make it right…or, move on. Perhaps we will never again drive along that same gravel road. Perhaps we will be allowed to begin the slow, faltering, acceleration along those shifting stones. Either way, hopefully we learn and do better the next time.
And we will also find ourselves sitting at the head of that endless gravel road to our own trust, choosing what we can and can’t forgive. Enduring the slights, the failures, and the betrayals, along with the beautiful gifts given in parallel. You will have to dispense justice and mercy as it makes sense to you. Just remember that you too are sliding along on your own gravel roads. You will not be able to abide every slide into the ditch but you should give mercy where you can. And if you can’t give mercy, at least offer forgiveness. Not everything can be forgotten, but it can be left behind.
As for the betrayal of trust described at the beginning of this post, I chose mercy. At least that time.