As a seeker of stories, I have heard many dramatic ones about trust: trust offered, with brazen innocence, to those who do not value the commodity; babies’ brains responding to their own unanswered cries by rewiring to fear, instead of trust; trust courted, coerced, then casually demolished. Growing up, we’re taught not to talk to strangers, to question what seem like random kindnesses, to seek ulterior motives. As a woman, my skin prickles with defense when dusk falls as I’m jogging; I lower the volume on my iPhone, listen for steps behind me, and switch sides of the road at a male runner’s approach. Mistrust of the world is bred into us from our youngest awareness.
Dr. David Haase, RTC author and integrative medicine brain specialist, taught me that “the neurons that fire together wire together.” That’s known as Hebb’s Law, named after the Canadian psychologist who theorized that “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased" (The Organization of Behavior). That is, an electrical path of least resistance zippers its way through the brain for tasks we repeat most often. As David explains, this is why we become better, more efficient, at anything we do repeatedly. It’s not just sports, art, or academic skills that benefit from this phenomenon. If we wake up every morning to watch the sunrise, we’ll become more attuned to the striations of color, the shapes of clouds. If we practice lying, those untruths will provoke our nervous sweat less and less. It is not just imagination or wishful thinking that practice makes perfect: our brains are actually changing to make repeated tasks easier for us. (Think about that as you look at your habitual actions and thought patterns.)
Trust, at its surface, doesn’t seem like something one can practice the way we might practice yoga or playing the piano--activities with observable milestones of achievement. Yet, electrically, the same firing-and-wiring is happening in our brain. And there’s always room for improvement.
I think about this as I reflect back on our RTC Adventure experience. While the whole Joshua Tree trip was engineered to foster growth--individual and relationship--one day in particular stands out to me as challenging our ability and willingness to trust.
Our group consisted of my beautifully cooperative boyfriend Adrian and me; our wonderful client Scott Miller and his lovely fiancee, Holly; RTC’s indomitable Leeann, who helped organize much of the trip; and brilliant singer-songwriter Matt Haslett. Cameron and Matthew (to distinguish from Matt) were our guides for the day. Though the two had just met that morning, they shared an air of kind serenity and quiet outdoorsy confidence that made them seem more like brothers.
By the time we finished our lunch of crackers, salami, cheese, granola bars, and fruit, the sun was shining warmly enough to inspire the removal of jackets and the spraying of sunblock. Matthew and Cameron asked us to gather together in a circle and to pair up for our first exercise, a simple trust fall. Adrian and Matt, of similar build, partnered, as did Holly and Leeann and Scott and me. One by one, arms intertwined at our chests, we fell backwards against the open palms of our partners. While I think Scott may have felt some reservations about our size difference (I’m not someone who looks particularly weight-bearing), he let himself fall backwards several times, each one a little deeper, with only one small stumble. In the next exercise, we formed a circle again, and one blindfolded person in the middle was gently pushed forwards, backwards, and sideways by the group members. It felt a little like an upright version of floating, eyes closed, in the ocean, trusting the buoyancy of your body to crest the waves. I didn’t hesitate in either exercise, and while it sounds nice to say it was because I trusted my team implicitly, I think now that there was simply not yet enough at stake.
That was about to change.
“Go back to your partners,” said Matthew. “Choose which one of you wants to be blindfolded first. The one who is not blindfolded is not allowed to speak. What we’re going to do is have the person who can see lead the blindfolded person--without speaking--on a trust walk. You have about a minute to talk about whatever you’d like . . . like maybe how you’re going to communicate.”
We all chuckled nervously, and Scott and I huddled together to make some decisions.
“It’s whatever you’re comfortable with,” he said, regarding who should go first.
The day before, Scott and I had been paired in “The Mona Lisa,” a communication exercise in which he had to describe a drawing he was holding in a way that was clear enough for me to recreate the image on a different page. We sat back to back at Echo Rock, feeling the cool breeze sweep through the passageway. I couldn’t see what he was looking at, and he couldn’t see what I was attempting to depict. He led me patiently through his instructions, never showing a hint of irritation when I asked him to repeat something for the third or fourth time. After that, I thought I should take the responsibility of seeing first today.
Of course, there was a stirring of anxiety in my chest. I’m Scott’s executive editor and, more than that, his writer, the person who is working most closely with him on his book. This walk was not going to be in a straight line over level ground. I could already see where Matthew was heading: toward land that sloped and rose, with rocks ranging from the size of oranges to the size of cars complicating the trajectory. I was nervous. What if I didn’t lead Scott effectively and he twisted an ankle or bumped his head? (Don’t get me started on what I’ve learned from Dr. Haase about traumatic brain injuries.) How would a failure in this exercise correlate to our work together, which goes so much deeper than “work” might make it seem?
Brushing past these concerns, I rattled off a (somewhat random) communication strategy.
“If I need you to step up with your right leg, I’ll . . . lift your right arm,” I said. “Same for the other side. For a short shuffle, I’ll just . . . tap your back really fast. If you need to duck, I’ll put my hand on your head.”
“Okay,” Scott said, already blindfolded. “Great. That sounds good.”
“All right, everyone,” Matthew said. “Your minute is up. Seeing people can no longer speak. Katie and Scott, follow me.”
Almost immediately, I felt the flaws in our silent shorthand. It didn’t feel natural to tap on Scott’s back when I needed him to take tiny shuffling steps over loose rocks--but I didn’t know how else to communicate that need. And while lifting and lowering his arms to indicate large steps up seemed to be effective, I had not thought about what to do to warn him about steps down. For simpler paths, I stood beside him and held a hand or an elbow, pressing a palm against the opposite shoulder to guide direction. For trickier ones, I walked backwards in front of him, holding both hands. Soon, the path narrowed, with rocks on either side and sharp brush extending above our heads. I may have been short enough to evade the prickly branches, but Scott was not, which I realized too late. And in areas where we needed to climb, I found it wasn’t enough to lift and lower his arms; I pressed his hands against the rocks so that he could feel the dimensions of the pathway and help himself up. I was sweating by the time we emerged into a small clearing, where Matthew stopped us and had us wait for the others so we could debrief.
“It’s interesting,” Scott said, the blindfold still covering his eyes. “It feels like we found a common language.”
Matthew gave us a minute to talk about what worked and didn’t work, and we made quick adjustments to our technique before continuing. In that second half, which challenged us with trickier terrain, we fell into a more comfortable rhythm of arm-lifting and gentle maneuvering.
We laughed when we got to the end, where Matthew stopped us and told us quietly that we’d wait there for the others. For a second, I took a breath and looked out over the landscape; we weren’t very high up, but that open desert space is so indifferent to man that it’s breathtaking. Unfortunately, Scott was still blindfolded, and in my moment of distraction, he turned his head directly into a skinny, straw-like branch.
“I’m so sorry!” I gasped. “Did it get you?”
Scott laughed good-naturedly. “No, it’s okay,” he said, touching a spot just above his left eye. Unexpectedly, I remembered something my mother once told me about relationships. (She and my dad have been happily married for thirty-six years).You can’t get distracted, she said. It was a strange time to understand what she meant, but I did.
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By the time it was my turn to be blindfolded, I was nervous but ready to experience what Scott had. We decided to keep the elements of our “language” that worked, and what I most remember of my sightless time was Scott placing my hands on the rocks around me, encouraging me to climb. It’s a strange feeling, climbing upwards on hands and knees, completely blind to what’s ahead. At one point, I had a brief flash of concern: what if Scott had a moment of distraction, just as I had, and I climbed myself right off a cliff? The thought was horrifyingly absurd enough to make a giggle rise in my chest. But that was the only moment I felt a semblance of anxiety. I remember smiling, grateful that I trusted Scott enough to actually enjoy the experience in a playful way.
When we reached another clearing, Scott sat me down on a rock and said, “I can’t wait until you see what you just did.”
I laughed. “I’m either going to be really impressed or feel really silly.”
Sure enough, blindfold off, I saw that what had felt like a mountain of rugged and steep proportions was an incline one would ordinarily walk upright with little to no safety concerns--and yet, thinking that I had traversed those rocks blindly, with only trust as a guide, was oddly impressive.
The experience taught me two things: first, that I find the responsibility of being trusted (the fear of accidentally betraying that trust) far more difficult than the act of trusting; secondly, that there is such value in--as Scott said--finding a common language that does not involve words. There is sacredness in silence when two people--or a community--are truly sharing the same space. There is the possibility of deep connection when we don’t allow ourselves to become distracted.
On the Monday after returning from Joshua Tree, Scott and I spent half an hour talking about our “re-entry” into the world. Then I guided the conversation to Scott’s book outline, which was about forty percent complete and which he had read for the first time a few days earlier.
“I just want really want to invite you to be candid,” I said. “If something doesn’t feel right, if you have any concerns, please know you’re not going to hurt my feelings. This is a collaboration.”
Scott was silent for a moment. “You know, Katie,” he said, “we can work on the details together later. For now, let’s let it blossom organically. I trust that every word you’ve written is meant to be there.”
I smiled. Scott was letting me lead him blindfolded again.