I tried this December not to get too caught up in the holiday buzz online, but since the season’s almost past us as we slide into the new year, I want to have at least one post hold some my thoughts about the idea of giving and generosity during these few weeks. And, well, as belated as it is, I guess this is the one.
Most skills we find useful in our lives are skills that directly benefit each of us individually. From learning how to color inside the lines to getting a doctorate degree, you’re the beneficiary, and that makes sense, because why would you learn something if it weren’t benefiting you in some way?
But there are a few things that we do every day, not to benefit us, but interestingly to (seemingly) make us more vulnerable: giving and trust. Without a basic network of intense trust connecting literally every single person on earth in some way, the world stops functioning. Why is that? Why do we celebrate by making ourselves more vulnerable to each other?
Speaker Simon Sinek gave an inspiring talk on a related idea a few years ago titled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” He suggests that while the mediocre leaders inspire and lead by exercising authority, “great leaders” inspire and lead by standing in the front lines, making themselves as vulnerable as those who follow them. Between great leaders and the people who follow great leaders, there’s not only a sense of inspiration and respect, but a kind of trust that comes from making each other more vulnerable.
One of the most interesting cases he brings up in the talk is a particular company with a lifetime employment policy, meaning if you are hired into the company, you are legally protected from losing your job for performance reasons. That’s a lot of trust the employer places on the workers, but it works, because trust is almost always mutual. It’s difficult to distrust someone who wholly trusts you.
I think there are largely two kinds of relationships between people. The first kind is the more common one, where the relationship is a balance between respect and mutual benefit, existing on the belief that there’s some benefit to everyone involved that comes from the relationship. But compared to the one Sinek talks about, this kind of a relationship is fragile, because it depends on the assumption that the people involved will gain something from the relationship, whether social status, money, connections, or information. It’s the relationship between you and your lawyer, the one between you and your teacher, the one between you and your doctor.
The second kind of relationship is, like diamonds, rarer and stronger. A relationship built on trust, on the mutual sharing of vulnerability, if you will, isn’t dependent on anyone gaining anything from it; it’s dependent on the safety and protection that others offer us when we trust them and they offer the same to us. The strength of a relationship built on vulnerability isn’t up to what benefits they can offer us or what we offer them; it’s up to factors we can control: how much we trust each other.
The Elixir of Life is a mythical potion that supposedly offers the drinker immortality; the ultimate protection. But sorry to break it to you, you’ve got a very slim chance at living forever. So instead, let me offer you something of a close second, what I’d call the Elixir of Mortality, of vulnerability. The Elixir of Mortality, when taken alone, makes you more vulnerable. You’re more likely to get hurt, and you’re more likely to lash out to others because of the way they treat you. But taken with other people, it strengthens everyone. It makes you bolder and more confident at looking out into the future and back into your past, because you know you have the trust of others. And by losing the facade of perfection and independence, we get something worth its while. What’s that?
Well, I guess that’s up to you to find out. Take the potion.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, A look back.
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