Even when we aren’t living under quarantine, there’s no such thing as too careful. Or so it would seem, based upon the warning labels that turn up more and more frequently on common, household products. A few real-world examples:
For external use only — On a curling iron.
Do not use in shower — On a hair dryer.
Do not drive with sun shield in place — On a cardboard screen that keeps sunlight off your dashboard.
May irritate eyes — On a can of self-defense pepper spray.
Remember, objects in the mirror are actually behind you — On a rear-view mirror.
Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage — On a baby stroller.
Warning: May cause drowsiness — On a bottle of sleeping pills.
Caution: Do not use near power lines — On a toilet plunger.
Do not use as an ice cream topping — On a tube of hair coloring.
Warning: do not attempt to swallow — On a mattress.
What does it tell us about ourselves that we have to be told the painfully obvious? Where are we headed as a society when the victory of common sense over monstrous stupidity can no longer be taken for granted?
Every once in a while, however, the obvious does surprise us by proving less than obvious. So I learned a number of years ago when I took my oldest daughter to visit our new neighborhood park.
My then two-year-old showed no fear as she ascended the six-foot high ladder to the top of the slide. I stood calmly beside her, looking the model of parental responsibility while utterly unconcerned for her safety.
After all, what could happen?
She reached the top of the ladder, stepped boldly onto the crest of the slide and fearlessly peered down the long slope in front of her. Then, instead of dropping onto her backside and sliding down in the conventional manner, she let out a shriek of delight and leaped over the handrail and into the void.
Fortunately, I was paying attention, my reflexes kicked in, and I caught her in mid-air. I sternly explained the proper method of descent, admonished her to slide down as instructed, and let her go again.
And away she went… leaping over the handrail and into my arms.
I don’t remember whether I ever did convince my daughter to use the slide correctly that day. But I do remember the absolute and unadulterated trust with which she threw herself into space knowing that I would catch her.
If only they could stay toddlers forever.
THE END OF INNOCENCE
How old are we when we stop trusting? Old enough, I suppose, to have discovered that not everyone around us is trustworthy. Old enough to learn that we have to take care of ourselves.
And that’s too bad. Of course, it’s true that we must be responsible for our own choices and actions. But we also have to depend on others — whether we like it or not.
As adults, even a little trust can prove challenging. Marriage counselors sometimes employ a device commonly used by improvisation troupes: the “trust fall.” What performers on a stage instinctively understand — and what partners in a family often struggle to learn — is that no partnership succeeds unless partners have confidence in one another.
To establish trust (or to determine whether trust exists), one partner stands in front of the other and falls straight back, waiting to be caught. In principle, it should be easy. After all, my partner has no desire to see me suffer traumatic brain injury. Does she?
Often, it takes many tries before one partner or the other is able to complete the exercise, keeping both feet together and not bending at the knees. Maturity has taught us to look after ourselves, and the habits of experience are not easily unlearned.
In contrast, little children have no illusions of their own self-sufficiency. They know they need their parents, and their confidence has no bounds.
As they begin to mature, however, their world takes on a different complexion, becoming a place of not only exploration but of self-assertion. The more children experience their own sense of individual identity, the more they seek to establish their own independence. They want to establish themselves as autonomous and self-reliant by drawing their own boundaries and making their own rules. At the same time, they are terrified of the responsibilities of independence.
Inevitably, they blame their parents for the paradox of their own existence. As one of my teachers, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, like to observe, there is no more profound form of mental illness than adolescence.
By the time young people come out on the other side, they no longer know whom they can trust, or whether they can even trust themselves. When that cultivated mistrust shapes the character of our society, is it any wonder that our interactions seem so dysfunctional?
This is why communities, organizations, and businesses flourish only when they are built around a culture of ethics. Because if it’s every man for himself, I’m too busy covering my own backside to worry about covering yours.
But when we know we can trust one another, we’re all members of the same team, working with common purpose, cooperating to reach collective goals, and watching each other’s backs.
It’s not a leap of faith. It’s a leap of trust.
In order to be trusted, you have to be trustworthy. And in order to be trustworthy, you have to be willing to trust others. Over time, there is no other reliable formula for success.
It’s a lesson particularly relevant for today. As social distance imposed forced separation between us and our friends and neighbors, we’re discovering that we need each other more than ever.
Let’s make sure we remember it after the crisis is over.