Moro Reflex

We are wired for trust.

Out of the womb and into the world, as a species, we possess a dearth of protective instincts. Anyone who’s ever seen a startled infant flail his arms and legs has to get that humans are ill-equipped to make it long-term on their own. The Moro Reflex may hearken back to an evolutionary day of falling primates desperately grasping to illusive clutches of fur. But its modern day display makes it pretty clear that babies truly believe that someone will always be there to catch them if they fall.baby

Fast-forward to 21st century maternal instincts and those Neanderthal kiddos couldn’t have gotten it more right. As a protective breed, modern day moms are even better (or worse) than their forebears. They don’t just protect defenseless babies; they follow those babies through developmental stages much further than any of their predecessors. Moms are catching falling children when they stumble in grade school, high school, and even college.

And their kids trust them to do so, to be there, to take care of things, to clean up after them.

Too bad it isn’t made crystal clear to those kids, though, that not everyone is in their corner like mom and dad. That trust isn’t necessarily the natural order of things out in the big bad world and that it may need to be deserved and earned. That flailing about waiting for someone to catch them is a pretty wrong way to wade through life.

After one of my students felt betrayed by her friends, she told me, “I don’t trust anyone.”

An extreme response.

She had been lucky to find a college group where she fit in. It guaranteed her a lot of fun nights and gave her a sense of security wherever she roamed on campus. After the mind-changing incident, though, she reconsidered whom she should call friend. I also suggested that such a large circle of “friends” might be unsustainable.

She came to believe that never again trusting anyone wasn’t the way to go, but a measure of caution might be a good idea.

Ah, lessons learned.

Michael isn’t as quick to trust as his sister is. He’s also more likely to cut someone off when he feels he’s been betrayed. He doesn’t forgive easily. Or perhaps, he’s like his grandmother who claims she’s willing to forgive, but never forgets. Hmmm.

Michael and I have been dissecting the nature of trust recently. He’s young to be in business for himself, young to be learning some of the harsh lessons to which he’s recently been exposed. He’s trying to decide whom to trust and who may—or may not—deserve a second chance. For now, he seems willing to align himself with “partners” while looking to a future as independent contractor. No surprise. Even in preschool, Michael was a bit of an independent contractor.

My kiddos from college, though, aren’t necessarily set up for such independence. Some of them have gotten used to sturdy safety nets stretched beneath them and have become adept cliff jumpers. It’s hard to blame their behavior; past evidence supports their death-defying exploits. Someone has always been there, able to catch them just before they hit rock-bottom.

The thing is, I want my students to take chances, to believe, to trust –in others, but especially in themselves. I also want them to know, however, that flailing about with open arms into a plummeting abyss is no way to start their lives, and certainly could be one that ends it.

Trust can be ephemeral. It shouldn’t be. But too often, it is.

I don’t (usually) ask my students to trust me. Like my son, I believe trust needs to be deserved and earned. But if I were to posit an unearned entreaty to my students, I would plead, trust me: you need to be careful about whom you trust.

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Brick walls

Alex’s teacher gave an early, but prophetic warning that family secrets didn’t live long in kindergarten classrooms. In spite of the fact that we had nothing particularly interesting to hide, the Sicilian omertà that must be hard-wired into my DNA left me unsettled at such a notion. Sharing secrets, no matter their insignificance, doesn’t sit well with me.brick walls

Maybe that’s why I’m sometimes still caught off-guard when people I barely know share theirs with me. In my role as long-distance interviewer for our clients’ students and grads, I’m sometimes taken aback by what these interesting strangers are willing to tell the voice on the other end of the line. Tragic deaths, debilitating illnesses, abusive relationships, drug dependencies. Perhaps they sense a cloak of anonymity in the strange area-coded telephone number and it lends comfort like a warm and reassuring blanket that it isn’t. I don’t get it. From the start of the conversation, they know that what I’ll be writing is meant for publication. And yet, they share so much that can’t really be published.

On the other hand, I am no longer surprised when my students do the same. Even in our initial meetings, they spill secrets quickly. I attribute their lightning fast disclosures to their youth and the social-media-tell-the-world-all generation from which they come. And understand that there’s something in the dynamic of even our earliest interactions that creates a layer of unearned trust.

I’ve adapted to this strange world order so readily that I’m now confused when students don’t tell me everything from the get-go.

One of my students let down her guard early on, but then did her best to rebuild the wall she tries so desperately to keep between us. For all the times my students—and even my own kids—have shared stories I didn’t need to hear, hers is one I’ve worked hard to unearth. Because I think she really, really wants to share it. Needs to.

We play a game, she and I. It’s a push-pull relationship, the kind with which I am too achingly familiar. Michael and I did this sort of dance for years and it was at times excruciating. But this young friend of mine isn’t my kid. She stepped into my world as a fully formed person with whom I never would have interacted, had it not been for this odd position that I now hold in her life. We’re sort of stuck with each other. We don’t have to be, though, not really. But when I gave her the option to fully bolt, she couldn’t. Like I said, I think she wants to share; she’s just not comfortable with the premise. And that I do understand.

For a whole lot of reasons, I find I have little in common with most of my students. It’s not just the generational divide; that’s too obvious. It’s a lot of other stuff about where we come from and what we consider as life’s priorities. But my sharing-adverse student and I are on the same page, in at least this one regard. I could actually teach her a thing or two about avoiding tough conversations. Instead, I’d rather she learn that the crushing weight she’s carrying would be less of a burden if she’d only share a little of it. It doesn’t have to be with me. I’ve told her as much. But it does need to be with someone she can trust.

She trusts me. On Tuesdays. Not always on Fridays. I get so close. We get so close. And then we’re not.

People often tell me I’m crazy for straddling two worlds, two jobs –both pretty demanding on my time and my psyche. I can’t fully explain why I do it. Except to turn to the metaphor of an incomplete building I can’t leave until finished. Although in my case, I’m not laying bricks, just trying to break a few down.