Investing in Trust

Investment is generally taken to mean following a strategy that allows us to siphon off value. A way of taking value from a living system and turning it into a quantity of abstract financial counters that we can then hold so as to use these at will to gain advantage. We strip a living web of relationships and use the power this gives us to defend the precariousness of our isolation by cocooning our selves from the consequences.

For most cultures that have ever lived this type of activity has been prohibited or at least looked down on as a destructive as well as a selfish act. In these cultures and societies people have understood that value, even of the most prosaic and pragmatic sort, cannot be maintained without trust existing among the people involved. Even the term, parties, which is commonly used in such a statement, is a corruption of the kind of relationship that has always existed between people who share value. The abstraction from people to party intends to isolate the participants from each other and maintain an alienation between those involved. As though the isolated individual seeking to extract value has nothing holding him in relation to those he is out to exploit.

In any functional society there are fundamental assumptions of relationship. These are defended and girded by institutions that uphold these relationships across whatever contingencies that arise. Even in the most hierarchical society these chains of relation are binding in every direction. Amassing tokens of wealth never bestows a “freedom” to ignore reciprocity. Everything from myth to story to law maintain this rule.

How does this feel in practice?

I don’t see this as a fanciful question. Unless we can find our way into such a condition – not just a theoretical understanding, but a visceral sense of what it feels like – we cannot make the kinds of meaningful shifts in behavior that could lead us out of our impasse.

Imagine a village. Everyone in our village – and beyond it to include those with power over its inhabitants – is dependent on everyone else for their survival. Dependent in myriad ways, many beyond their common understanding. Most are traceable through a shared heritage of myth and story and law. The concept of value in such a situation could not realistically be separated from that of community. There are stories of finding pots of gold, but these stories never end well. They remind everyone of the folly of chasing after a way out; keeping in everyone’s mind how such a fantasy always ends badly. Think of Midas starving to death as everything he touches turns to gold. People may, to greater or lesser degrees, lust after an extrinsic value like gold, but anyone who takes this fantasy too seriously will be reined in. The fact that this is a ruinous and childish fantasy and not some honored and esteemed path to glory is never confused for long or by many.

We have wandered far from such a place, where people see investment in a very different light. Not as a tool for an individual to mine his community and usurp its wealth; but as a giving of value to the community as a means of participating in mutual trust.

Financial language pays lip service to these realities. Banks are called Trusts. The word mutual is bandied about. There are any number of such toxic simulacra that can be wormed out, seen for what they are, attempts to confuse the perpetrator’s victims and mollify their own conscience. But the kind of trust kept in our village is a matter of life and death, for all. No insurance covers anyone’s losses. No secure vault exists that can hide tokens of vitality in a way that will help anyone get through hard times without everyone taking into account how the whole village will fare. No challenges or battles that can be farmed out, transferred to someone else. Life and death means life and death.

Of course this is true no matter what fantasies anyone might wish to hide behind; but when the predominant structures built upon the common assumptions of thought within a culture refuse to acknowledge this and actively strive not just to hinder, but in many cases, actually destroy anyone who attempts to live up to that reality; this is not an easy thing to maintain.

We are deeply conditioned to hedge our bets. We do not believe life has to be taken seriously. We are dreamers, drugged into a fitful sleep and, as in a nightmare, we find ourselves powerless and without the strength to resist what we know to be dangerous, even fatal.

This condition, as with all of our conditioned modes of thought, feeling, and reaction, will not change unless we find ways to make these conditions visible and then work our way by trial and error into embodying another way of thinking, feeling, and responding that faces facts we have so long ignored.

*

Every person, member of whatever class or segment within our dysfunctional society, has fragments of what is required available to them and, also, suffers from deadly blind-spots that keep us all from seeing a way forward. This is too often ignored. The habit of separation and division takes over and all we see are our strengths and everyone else’s weaknesses and bad faith. We cannot proceed through furthering these separations. In our village this fatal reaction cannot maintain itself. No one can long endure who believes the fantasy that they are right and everyone else is wrong. A certain amount of blaming-the-other certainly takes place as a way of letting off steam. But no one can long suffer the belief that this is anything but a fantasy once the next dire straight forces all to find some way to pull together somehow if they are to survive.

Somehow…, this characterization sounds so conditional…, lacking in assuring certainties. But there is something better than certainty. Anyone living as though life and death is real knows viscerally that this is true. Certainty is a fool’s bargain. But faith that we can somehow prevail provides traction. It connects us, brings our disparate capacities and abilities together, and gives us a chance.

The one certainty we may have is that the ways we’ve been conditioned to think, to feel, to react will not give us any chance at all. We watch in horror as our room to maneuver narrows and our path forward gets ever steeper. What we need more than anything is a belief in a tenuous somehow. Some way to sidestep the kind of nihilistic death worship so many of us have turned to as our desire for comforting certainties crumbles around us.

We don’t need to start new utopias. We don’t need to carve off “centers for innovation.” We certainly don’t need more think tanks, schools of economics, or art colonies!

When extinction closes in on a population, any community-of-life, its members either find and adapt to some refugia or extinction takes them. A Refugio is not a utopia. It is not ideal and it will never be ideal, thank God! All it can provide is a little breathing space. Some time and a specific place with its specific conditions that are good enough so that a fragment of a dying community can adapt in it and to it.

We’re mistaken to think something like a monastic tradition preserved old ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting. Whatever their intention they were not that at all. These were places, holding a set of conditions where fragments of the old ways could survive long enough to adapt to new and hostile situations. They succeeded not by holding onto anything, but by providing the time and focusing the effort required to adapt.

Now, this was not what they thought they were doing. This is another useful clue. It is not important what anyone thinks they are doing. Not so much as how what they are doing is adaptable and that those involved are flexible enough – even if that flexibility is manifested through an insistence on remaining rigid! Flexible enough to survive long enough to adapt.

This brings us back to trust. You see, trust is not a negotiation in which all the risks have been worked around and all certainty accounted for and every contingency guaranteed. Even a misplaced trust can help us survive so long as it leads us to adapt a greater coherence of thought and action than we had before.

This trust in somehow seems to fit the bill, somehow….

We perennially put off and avoid making commitments in trust because we are afraid we will trust the wrong person or thing. And there are plenty of examples of that! Trust in any thing is most likely to bring us greater incoherence not more. But this kind of trust is not a trust in some fantasy. It is a compact. Arrived at by a fragment of a collapsing society that choose, or have had every other choice taken from them, so that they have no other choice than to trust each other and trust in somehow.

 

Queequeg’s Coffin

 

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