Connection and trust
“Violence may begin as a contest over resources, but it often ends as a contest over meaning.” —Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn (as quoted in Lauret Savoy’s Trace)
It finally snowed this morning, like snowed properly at my house, not just sputtering flakes but a whole soggy inch that hours later is still there. I thought, “I should take a photo of the snow to share on my newsletter but it’s kind of bleak and gray out and surely there will be nicer snow days to share.” And I’m sure there will be, and I will share them. Today, I couldn’t take a picture that made me feel anything about the snow—which I love—that was greater than what I felt just looking at the actual snow. That is, the photos I took flattened the snow-joy and the way that snow makes me feel hopeful because I always worry about climate change and the snow we will lose, and no photo will make me either more or less hopeful.
This photo, instead, is of someone’s mask that has been sitting on a sidewalk for at least a week and I’m confused and fascinated by it. Confused because I’m constantly confused by the many cloth masks lying around, in the same way that I’ve been confused for years by the sheer quantity of coats and gloves and water bottles and backpacks accumulated in the elementary school lost and found—don’t people notice these things are missing? (My kids have lost countless gloves and sweaters and hats and coats and I have dug through those piles for every single one.) Fascinated because I can’t help but wonder the reasoning behind this person’s choice of mask. Are they wanting to make a political point? A patriotic one? A declaration of personal independence or loyalty? A conversation starter?
The most legible part of the mask, “We the People,” obviously from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution (obvious partly from the lettering but mostly from the smaller-font Articles peppered across the mask), means so many different things to so many people. Who are We? Who are the People? What does this person think is meant by “a more perfect Union” or “promote the general Welfare” or the “Blessings of Liberty?” Is what they feel about those words different from what I feel?
I Googled “We the People” on my browser (Safari) to remind myself of the exact wording of the Preamble. The first search result wasn’t the Constitution, but “We the People” holsters. I went to a Google Chrome Incognito window because maybe it’s just me and my hunting-related search history but nope, same result.
Last week I read Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead, which I’ve never read before because I don’t work in the corporate world and it didn’t seem relevant to me and it’s not my kind of book anyway. But because every year seems to bring a deeper level of community engagement for me, and I have actually gotten a lot of internal guidance from Brown over the years, I picked it up.
There’s a curious exercise in it where Brown provides a huge list of values and asks readers—or groups of people that she’s working with—to choose just two:
“Choose one or two values—the beliefs that are most important and dear to you, that help you find your way in the dark, that fill you with a feeling of purpose. As you read them, you should feel a deep resonance of self-identification. Resist holding on to words that resemble something you’ve been coached to be, words that have never felt true for you.”
Values you have been coached to be. That’s a huge one. To pause, step back, and wonder how many values are core for you, and how many are values you’ve been coached to prioritize. I almost wonder if figuring out which are coached values, grafted onto your core self, might be a more uncomfortable process than figuring out the true ones.
The list of value options is stupidly long—including space to add more that occur to you—and I thought, “How is anyone meant to narrow their guiding values down to just two out of this massive list?” Anticipating that objection, Brown writes that,
“I’ve taken more than ten thousand people through this work, and when people are willing to stay with the process long enough to whittle their big list down to two, they always come to the same conclusion that I did with my own values process: My two core values are where all of the ‘second tier’ circled values are tested.”
That line was what made me go back and actually try. Because “community” and “connection” are right in proximity to each other and I know that at least one of them would be in my list of two. Everything about writing a book about walking that surprised me ended up having to do with the fact that walking and walkability always circled back to community and connection. I can cheat, I thought. They’re so entangled in my mind that I can have both of them and something else, too.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that community might be, for me, an iteration of connection. It’s connection that I value; community is the medium. Community is what humanity uses to manifest the best of connection, along with the other value I chose, which was an immediate no-brainer for me: trust.
There’s a great line at the end of Robert Moor’s book On Trails, in the section where he’s in Morocco mapping a potential trail that’s a kind of extension of the Appalachian Trail, to which it would be linked geologically from when the continents formed one giant land mass. It was a difficult journey, not physically but due to some cultural differences that proved challenging to bridge, and led Moor to think about what connection truly means in a digital age when “connection” can happen in a microsecond but psychological connection has not changed its speed:
“We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the (comparatively, lichenous) rate at which trust can grow.”
(Just on a writerly note I love the use of the comma between “comparatively” and “lichenous” here. Wonderfully intentional.)
Much of what I’ve been reading and listening to recently winds up back at trust, no matter what the subject, like the Conspirituality podcast, where I’ve been roaming around sampling their conversations. I was particularly interested in their talk with Lee McIntyre (author of How to Talk to a Science Denier) and how strongly he emphasized interpersonal trust and relationships—and even more curious, how the interview led the hosts themselves to question and examine their own trust in one another.
And then I ended up sharing C Thi Nguyen’s Aeon essay on echo chambers and cults with a friend (I probably share this essay with people more than any other), which led into a long text conversation about trust and relationships and our own self-examinations—for example, I am deeply mistrustful of charismatic leaders, I told my friend. That’s not true of everyone; for many, it’s the opposite.
I keep finding myself in these conversations recently, possibly because there really is so much fractured trust and political/social tension in the valley where I live, and I don’t have any good answers. “Be, or become, someone people can trust” is all I’ve got sometimes. If I ever met the person who owned that Constitution mask, trust—and its companion curiosity—might be the only avenue to understanding their own values, and what connects us.
How far can trust be stretched before it breaks? When meaning and goodwill are no longer extended across divisions, is it trust that falls in between, lost and forgotten?
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
Ed Roberson’s Good News from the American West tipped me off to Elliott Woods’s new 12-part podcast Third Squad. Woods is an Iraq veteran and became a photo-journalist afterwards embedded with Marines in Afghanistan. He’s now a journalist based in Montana. In Third Squad he talks frankly about war and trauma while traveling across the U.S. meeting with the surviving veterans of the Marine squad he had reported on before. It can be hard listening, though I think it’s incredibly important, but if you don’t have time or desire to listen I strongly recommend his 2016 TEDx talk in which he discusses what it’s like to be in combat and return as a veteran to a country where hardly anyone seems to remember the war exists: “Stare into your own eyes in the mirror and ask, ‘What responsibility do I have in all that has been done in our name?’”
Also from Ed Roberson, an uplifting interview on his Mountain & Prairie podcast with Montana cattle rancher Matt Pierson about Pierson’s work to bring meat to food banks and families in need across the state, and what he’s doing to make that work an ongoing concern.
Novelist Rosalie Metro writing in The American Scholar about what it’s like to experience whiteness as a Syrian in America and its opposite as a Syrian in Germany: “My grandfather worked six and a half days a week for decades to make sure his children had a firm foothold in the white middle class. He was proud of his Syrian heritage, but he didn’t let it limit his children. . . . But when people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, there’s often someone they’re stepping on.”
I really enjoyed this War on Cars conversation with Michael Hobbes (co-host of the popular podcasts You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase) for the way they dive in deep to pick apart moral panics and the ways in which journalists/media outlets frame stories to push a reaction when there’s no there-there.
The infrastructure bill that the U.S. Congress passed is disappointingly heavy on perpetuating car dependence in America, but it does have quite a lot of money for walking, biking, and other multi-modal transportation. The Rails-to-Trails Coalition has a pretty good breakdown. If you’re in the U.S. and involved or want to be involved in walkable/bikeable communities, this is essential information, especially if you want to advocate for active transportation use of discretionary funds.
As someone with generally low energy who could probably be happy sitting in a chair drinking tea and reading books all day every day, I found Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker piece on energy really interesting, though a little frustrating in the threads it left hanging, especially at the end (if you found yourself high in energy after spending quality time walking and conversing with a good friend, wouldn’t you want to go look into research on connection/relationships/loneliness/walking and mental health? There’s a lot of it!). I also found it weird that he kept mentioning his drinking habits but never went into the ample research on alcohol’s effects on the REM cycle. I’ve definitely seen a difference in sleep quality when drinking vs. not drinking. But also, for all the life hacking devices Paumgarten experiments with, what about looking into the ways that modern life is just fundamentally exhausting?
I just started reading Patrick Wyman’s book The Verge, about the years 1490-1530 and how they shape our present, so Karla Mallette’s essay in Psyche on how 12th-century Genoese merchants invented risk was very timely. (I’d never thought about risk payments being a workaround for Christian and Islamic laws that forbade earning interest on loans.)
I found this Aeon essay on the six narratives of globalization and what we get wrong about them a bit confusing at first (the use of fox and hedgehog methods of interpreting information eludes me), but overall it’s clear and makes sense of the different understandings of globalization and what we might be missing if we’re using one narrative while an interlocutor is coming from another, not to mention how we build our own trust in sources: “Our survey of competing hedgehog narratives suggests that the debate’s centre of gravity is shifting away from the old establishment consensus in at least two respects: questions of distribution, both within and between countries, are increasingly central; and noneconomic values, whether environmental, social or security-related, are increasingly qualifying or outweighing a primary focus on efficiency and growth.”
A subscriber sent me this fantastic interview on the Econtalk podcast with law professors Michael Heller and James Salzman on their new book Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives. I loved how they started with the example of an airline seat: You have purchased your seat, and the person in front of you has purchased theirs, so who owns the space in between—the person who wants to work on their laptop (or keep their knees intact), or the person who wants to recline their seat? Ownership, they keep reiterating, is a story we tell ourselves. I couldn’t agree more.
I loved this Scotland Outdoors interview with author Baz Nichols on neglected landscapes: “Very often when I walk, particularly in a remote or bleak place, I willfully get lost. And by getting lost you go off the maps and can find rich pickings creatively, and spiritually.” Yes, please.
As usual, so much that will bounce around my mind for days. So much...
This: "I couldn’t take a picture that made me feel anything about the snow—which I love—that was greater than what I felt just looking at the actual snow."
I love the lack of modern-style guilt here. The refusal to think "but I shouldn't be selfish! I should share it with *waves hands* you know, other people, I don't know who but someone!" Which surely is a microaggression against the self, a little "you? Your don't deserve THIS!" self-talk. And it's always so wrong. We deserve the moment (plus, we're the best-placed person to get the most from it). The world can take its judgemental negative connotations of this and stick them where the sun doesn't shine*.
The masks are haunting me right now and I don't see enough talk about what to do with them. They're everywhere here as roadside litter, and they're not going anywhere - or presumably they are, namely, the rubbish bins, and into landfills to take decades to break down. It's grim to think about. I wish I knew what was going to be done. I'm sure there are grassroots upcycling efforts springing up here and there ("fancy a quilt made of masks? Whaddayamean no?", but it's a drop in the ocean, surely? I can see these turning into a horrific problem...
My issue with community, as it's used in business & startup terms is that everyone is being Copernican. It's a community around *them*, with them being the focus. Whereas connection to me suggests something less obviously having a centre (and therefore the same being true with a periphery). A forest is connected. Everywhere is a sort of middle and a sort of edge, a bit? I prefer thinking of "community" like that, including with people following my own work. Being aware that in many of the stories springing up on the space I'm nurturing, I'm not Player One, I'm a support character, and that's good and right and something to enjoy. Proper connecting.
I'm writing another essay in your comments again. Please stop, Mike. Stop now.
I loved Savoy's book; it was riveting.