Balancing trust with protecting yourself?
December 8, 2007 5:01 PM   Subscribe

If you believe that people are inherently good, and you approach the world with trust — if you might accurately be described as dewy-eyed and idealistic — if you believe that justice occurs and evil is punished — how do you preserve these elements of your personality (trust, innocence, belief in justice) in light of the urge to protect yourself from hurt and attack (emotional shielding)?

How do you handle the problem of evil (i.e., an all-powerful all-good God wouldn't sit by and let atrocities happen) — and the fact that evil does, repeatedly, go unpunished and oft even is rewarded — in light of this worldview that the world is inherently good and can be trusted?

Without baring my soul too deeply, suffice it to say that my emotional shielding has been too strongly in place for too long, and I'd like to start laying a foundation down on the other side of the tracks. It's also not a question of just needing time to heal from the circumstances described in this previous question, as I've recently realized that the shields were up long before that particular event occurred; that worldview evolved as a result of, well, events from adolescence, college, and adulthood.
posted by WCityMike to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Proudly bringing the first "theodicy" tag to Mefi.)
posted by WCityMike at 5:02 PM on December 8, 2007

Other people will give much longer and better answers, but my contribution is this: it is possible to believe that people are inherently good, without having to fool yourself that the world is inherently good. We all live in structurally violent and inherently biased systems -- that is, the social worlds in which we live produce a lot of misery for many, if not most, people. But at an individual level -- at the level at which we live our lives -- that violence and those inequities do not need to structure our day-to-day interactions, and in fact they largely don't.

No dewy-eyed idealism involved at all, just a recognition that the best outcomes are derived from openness and treating people with trust. (Think of it as self-interested altruism, if you want.)
posted by Forktine at 5:26 PM on December 8, 2007

As I've just learned the hard way, n-thing Forktine's "best outcomes are derived from openness and treating people with trust."

So many of the reactions that you get when you assume otherwise are dysfunctional and damaging. At this point in my life, if I want to get hurt, I don't want that hurt to be because I didn't trust someone. Not to be a Pollyanna, but to be the one with integrity no matter what the outcome.
posted by melissam at 5:35 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey WCM, to begin, what you're feeling is normal and your want to expand beyond is very cool. Regarding how I operate with what you're talking about: I'm a dick sometimes because I have shields too. When I meet a potential "friend" sometimes I just have to say "no thanks".

What keeps me balanced and in tune is trying to be a good human myself. Something that I preach to my wife and other close people is "Take care of yourself so that you can take care of other people". It works.

When I do good things for people, whether it's just listening or helping the old lady or being cool to folks during a traffic jam, it makes me feel good about myself and the world around me.

The more good I do, the more good I see in others.

I hope this is helpful.
posted by snsranch at 5:40 PM on December 8, 2007

People do the best they can, but they are always reacting to lots and lots of things, all at once. Life is complex. People have limited resources, and are faced with conflicting and shifting priorities. Cut everyone some slack, yourself included. Your event has colored everything that came after it, and probably also altered your memory of what came before it. It's easy to fall into the trap of attempting to simplify what we're all up against, but people and events and everything overlaps, and we all have to cope. That might make people sometimes seem evil to you based on how they react, but it's my opinion that few people are actually malicious.
posted by veronitron at 5:40 PM on December 8, 2007

Well I am far from dewy eyed and idealistic on some days, but I don't think you can blindly trust that all people are inherently good. That is a recipe for disaster when that one smooth operator comes along and breaks your heart or steals everything you own or both. True idealism is rooted in reality and knowing you might be tilting at windmills but doing it anyway. You don't have to be a sucker, it is okay to maintain a healthy self preserving outlook when entering new situations, but the point is you still try. Most stop trying, that is when cynicism sets in. I don't think in world terms. I think locally, very locally, like the fact that a lot of animals are abandoned where I live. I take them to the vet, get them neutered/spayed and I feed them. It is hard to believe people are inherently good when they choose to get an animal and then neglect, abuse and abandon it, but I still choose to try and make a difference to the animals that come across my path. It is how I choose to try and make the world a better place .
posted by 45moore45 at 5:54 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

People are good, individuals are assholes.
posted by null terminated at 6:01 PM on December 8, 2007

I just don't have that strong an urge to protect myself. If I trust someone and they betray me it will hurt me deeply, but I don't want a life without that hurt. If I love someone and they reject me it will hurt me deeply, but I don't want a life without that hurt. I don't want a trust that is safe from that hurt; I don't want a love that is safe from that hurt.

The possible downsides of openness and trust, to me, cannot be separated from the benefits. You can either embrace them both or reject them both, but if you attempt to trust without being hurt, love without being hurt, then you'll never really be able to love or trust properly.

The problem of evil doesn't disprove goodness and it's not a reason not to trust, it's just a warning that your openness can sometimes end in pain. At the end of the day, I'd still much rather have a life full of love, from the absolute bliss through to the absolute despair, than a protected, emotionally 'safe' existence.
posted by twirlypen at 6:03 PM on December 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

I don't believe that ALL people are inherently good, but I do believe that basic goodness is generally in folks' self-interest. If you're decent to other folks and trustworthy, you'll get support, love, help, forgiveness, opportunities... If you're a violent, lying jerk you'll get rejection, mistrust, hurt, and possibly law enforcement type consequences.

Basically I believe that the only reason to be violent or malicious is stupidity. I guess I don't believe in evil, just stupidity, and I suppose insanity. I think the odds and the workings of the world are against stupid and insane people to begin with. If one of them ever hurts you it's a case of them slipping through the cracks. So to be emotionally crippled by fear of them seems like overkill. If you're smart yourself, and observant, you can do a lot to avoid trouble.

And any trouble that might come your way is pretty insignificant compared to all the love, support, help, comfort, and opportunity in the world. Call me a pollyanna for saying that, but I call em like I see em. Evil routinely goes unpunished? Sure. Good routinely goes unrewarded, too. You can waste your life worrying about the Hitlers and the Saddams if you want to, but I think you're letting the mass culture make personal decisions for you at that point. Do you really think that repeated evil is going to befall YOU if you take more risks? There are billions of people in the world, and the fact that evil is hurting some of them at any one time is true. Ask yourself what's going on with the rest of them? Are they shut in at home? Or are they living life? Probably many on both sides. But which do you want to be?

There are choices you can't reason your way through. You just have to make them. That's what makes them choices and not problems.
posted by scarabic at 6:07 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

People are good, individuals are assholes.

I disagree. I think people and humanity, in general, are "bad" (in the vaguest sense) but there are millions of good individuals who keep it all balanced out.

The only way I rationalise the good / evil thing is to always remember that people tend to always do things in their own self interest, and that people tend to believe that whatever they do is actually "right" at the time and in the circumstances. For example, if someone does a hit and run, that person did, at least, think that was the "right" thing for them, even if it's bad for someone else. Doing things that you are think are "right" aren't inherently evil, but can only be viewed as such from an external viewpoint / third party.. so evilness is in the eye of the observer, not within the transgressor.
posted by wackybrit at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2007

There's an interpretation of the Eden story that says that the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is what separates us from the animals, and that all of the punishments handed down by God were actually the inevitable consequence of that knowledge. We toil because we can foresee the future and that we must make provision. We suffer in childbirth because we love our children and fear for them. And we suffer the bitterness of death because, unlike the animals, we know of our own mortality. It is that knowledge that makes us like gods, just as the serpent promised.

It's the pain that makes us human. Everyone you know who has lived long enough has felt soul-ripping pain that they thought they couldn't survive. When I was in my dark place, it was the realization that I wasn't the only one to hurt this way that somehow gave me the strength to go on. Not that I wished it on anyone. But it meant I could find my way out, and learn to be happy again.

So I guess the 'trust' that I feel isn't the trust that bad things won't happen, but the trust that I'll find the resources within myself to overcome the bad things. And I have. And so will you.
posted by happyturtle at 6:38 PM on December 8, 2007

There's nothing dewy-eyed and idealistic about trusting people to do the right thing. I've heard it said that to trust someone is "to give them the approval of your trust". So by all means, trust. It usually doesn't cost anything :)

Reading your previous post, it sounds like when you were younger you discovered what it's like to lose yourself in another person, even in friendship, and that this can be a beautiful thing. I am with you on that. But outside of your own family, most non-romantic relationships you have, and even some romantic ones, will be quite superficial.

Superficial and rational. When you start opening back up, you just might find that others really are interested in you and your life. But only up to a certain point. That doesn't make their interest in you any less real, it just means they've got priorities too.

Good, evil, I dunno man. Personally, I think people are naturally good, and want to live good lives, and it's the world which does them in. Also, I have a personal sense -- I guess you could say I have faith -- that even if the world seems unjust now, eventually justice does prevail. Judgment Day, karma, call it what you want.

Good luck on your ponderings!
posted by Laugh_track at 6:42 PM on December 8, 2007

Well, I feel a bit hokey for posting it, but this got me through a lot: Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Keep in mind that fear is not the guy with the knife. It's more insidious than that--fear is that you don't know who has a knife and who doesn't. If you knew it would be easy. So I choose to believe that people are inherently good, and that even when they do bad things, they are acting out of the only frame of mind that makes their world make sense. If the knife shows up, eliminate it in the kindest and most efficient way possible. I don't believe uniformly that justice occurs or that evil is punished, nor do I believe they need to be for me to greet the world from a place of trust and openness. I have been excruciatingly hurt in the past. If I could have chosen not to be I would have. But all closing myself off does is reduce the good in the world--the good I may give and the good I may get. Life is not a zero sum game. Protecting yourself doesn't guarantee crap.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:50 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I dunno, the math is pretty simple. If you never open yourself up to hurt, you have 0% chance of getting hurt. You also have 0% chance of making any kind of meaningful connection.

On the other hand, if you are willing to make yourself vulnerable, you may get creamed 50% of the time, but what you get out of the other 50% makes it worth it to most of us.

I know it sounds like hocus pocus mumbo jumbo but there's a lot worth considering in "practice random acts of kindness" and "be the change you want to see" and "how people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours" and similar... platitudes, I guess.

I don't believe the world is basically good, if it makes a difference. I think it's pretty much split between good and evil. Those of us on the side of good have to activelywork a little harder to balance out all those evil bastards and keep the world in balance.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:53 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I spend a good amount of time beng a dewy-eyed idealist and trying to live out the mantra of "be the change you want to see in the world" However, slightly unlike your question, I don't extrapolate this to a larger worldview because I feel that there isn't a ton I can do to affect the entire larger world, pragmatically. I'm not sure how I feel about justice worldwide, but I know i strive for justice in my own life, for example. You asked about emotional shielding which I see more as a discussion about connecting with people, not neccessarily a larger political question about accepting and tolerating the larger complicated entire planet of people.

So, I think part of it for me is, as scarabic says, accepting that sometimes you just have to make a choice, the one that feels good to you, and you're never going to know if it's right nor not. Part of that is choosing to maybe not come out "on top" of any particular interaction but wanting to come away from that interaction as a person who walked into it with an open mind and heart and tried to have genuine interactions with people. Soemtimes you'll do all this and stuff will go badly for whatever reason. Maybe it's them, maybe it's you, maybe it's a bad fit, maybe there are external situations that are leading to any of the possibilities on that list. You can't know, and trying too hard to know (at the expense of possibly other interactions) is a controlling instinct that, while good for people who like to think abotu things (I think you fall into this category, I know I do) is ultimately not really a constructive use of time you could be spending having more genuine interactions with people.

Some people have told me that I have hazy views on evil because I grew up without religion and as a result the sort of judgmental good/bad that some people have instilled in them at an early age is somehow missing in my outlook. So, I don't believe in evil. I think bad things happen and I find it upsetting, but I don't dwell on the nature of evil and the unfairness of its existence. I believe that generally the world is chaotic, barely understandable and going worse for many people than it is for me. So when I have interactions with people or institutions that are "sub-optimal" [my favorite new word for "sucks"] I assume there is a reason I can't understand and in trying too hard to understand it, I'm keeping myself from doing better more fun things with my brain.

I'm sorry this is a little bit "blah blah, I'm like this" but I think about variants on this question a lot and at the end of my thinking about this topic, I decided at some point that I'd rather be someone who trusted people and loved the unlovable (even if in doing so, things don't go my way all the time) than someone who was too guarded to be able to really be touched by the world around me.
posted by jessamyn at 7:26 PM on December 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Like a number of other folks have already commented, I do believe in the general "goodness" of people in large part because society generally rewards "goodness." Not in huge, overt ways, necessarily, and certainly not -always-, but in general things just seem set up such that being "good" makes life easier and happier. Another HUGE part of it, for me, lies in a word I've already used way too much: "generally". It really helps me to remember that NOTHING is absolute, and NOTHING is objectively one-sided. What is 'good' for me might not be so for another person. Furthermore, a person who generally is 'good' might have a bad day, might treat someone in a way they wouldn't normally, etc. There are so many variables involved that even when someone acts in a way that doesn't seem 'good' to me I generally dismiss it as a fluke or even as something that seems bad from MY point of view but not necessarily from the other person's view. It may just be confirmation bias, but being (I guess) predisposed to take that more 'dewy-eyed and idealistic' viewpoint to begin with, I just don't feel compelled to allow examples of human depravity to disprove my belief that in general people usually are predisposed to treat others in a 'good' manner.

Another "plank" for me comes from self-reflection and from observing how other people react to how I treat them. I know that when I treat someone in an ugly manner, the guilt eats at me. It feels BAD - if I treat someone badly I have to live with seeing them react as a human being who has just been treated badly, and ... I find that painful. On the other hand, when I do something that I think has had a positive effect on someone, it feels very very GOOD. Again I guess the reinforcement and consequences of good/bad behavior come into play - I figure that if -I- generally feel bad when I do bad things, and good when I do good things, probably other people feel the same way and will generally try to act accordingly.

Finally, I just plain find that life is more pleasant when I live it expecting the best of people. Yes, people will sometimes let you down or hurt you and that can be intensely painful ... but that's going to happen no matter WHAT you do. You can be the most suspicious, guarded person in the world and sooner or later someone is going to figure out how to trick/betray you, and you're going to end up hurt by them - but in the meantime you've also had to live every day of your life suffering the genuine 'drain' that comes from clenching up and bracing yourself for that betrayal at all times. For me that just costs too much, I'd rather dedicate my energies towards being able to pick myself up when the occasional betrayal DOES knock me to the ground, and in the meantime enjoy how very good it feels to live believing (and often being proven correct in my belief) in the "goodness" of the people in my life.

Like Samuel Johnson said: "It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust."
posted by zeph at 7:30 PM on December 8, 2007

Mike... good for you for thinking about this stuff... all too often we go through life reactive and not processing what we experience... thinking is harder, but in the long run makes us better people.

My input, for what it is worth... people are who they are...a sum of their experience... our job might be to understand what that is, understand what has caused the good/bad part of what they thrust upon us... it is in the understanding that we are able to learn to forgive, appreciate, embrace who they are...

I don't believe that people are "good" or "bad"...they are products ...... they probably had little choice in the final outcome of the factors that created them.
posted by HuronBob at 7:37 PM on December 8, 2007

One other thing that is important to me, although I suppose it's not something one can just up and "choose" if they don't already feel this way: strangely enough I find that being agnostic makes me FAR more convinced (and appreciative) of human "goodness." I realize that there maybe are some people who ONLY do good things out of fear of divine retribution and hope for divine reward, but I just have to think (and hope!) that even among religious types those people are in the minority. The idea that people only treat each other decently because they think they're being "watched," to me, just ... denies so much of what is truly beautiful about human beings and the fact that atrocities ARE the exception rather than the rule*.

And even more important to me is this: I cannot believe we feel good when we treat one another well because an all-knowing being created us to feel good when we treat one another well - and yet for some mysterious, amazing reason we generally DO feel good when we treat one another well. It doesn't seem like that HAD to be the case, and yet by and large it is. And I find that amazing, and beautiful, and it makes me feel almost -obligated- to expect and appreciate the goodness of others - denying it simply because not everyone is "good" in all situations just somehow feels like I'd be overlooking something massively special and important, maybe kind of like being unable to appreciate a gorgeous view because sometimes it gets dark and stormy, if that makes any sense ... Or maybe I'm just too dewy-eyed and idealistic to even have any -business- trying to explain myself; hard to tell ;)

*I certainly mean no disrespect, nor am I trying to claim that most religious folks believe people should only do good because their god wants them to, but from what I can gather it does seem to be at least some part of some folks' beliefs. Regardless, please don't take this as an intended affront even if you DO happen to believe so, maybe it doesn't really matter WHY we're good to one another so long as we are ... there's room enough for all kinds of beliefs, yeah? =)
posted by zeph at 7:58 PM on December 8, 2007

I'd say that a workable balance between trust and vulnerability is to think of yourself as (and be) an honorable person who gives others the benefit of the doubt. Approach people with caution but good will. You don't have to drop the shields completely but lower them a bit and see what happens. You can usually get a sense of the other person fairly quickly and decide how you want to continue with them (shields up or down?)

A certain amount of hurt is inevitable in life. But there's a good deal of comfort in knowing that you behaved honorably and the other person was the jerk (insofar as any given situation has a "bad guy"). I can think of 2 or 3 times when I was badly hurt by someone I cared about, but in every case I felt that I had acted honorably and had nothing to be ashamed about even though it ended badly. Yes, I still hurt inside a lot but I'd much rather be in pain than twisted by guilt and shame - at least I can live with myself.

You sound like a good guy, Mike, and I wish you all the best in dealing with your situation.
posted by Quietgal at 8:31 PM on December 8, 2007

I do believe in the general "goodness" of people in large part because society generally rewards "goodness." Not in huge, overt ways, necessarily, and certainly not -always-, but in general things just seem set up such that being "good" makes life easier and happier

I'd say that people who do good things do tend to be happier, but happiness is not a reward from society but a reward from yourself. I don't think that the larger society rewards honest, down to earth "goodness." The way a large society can reward people is with wealth, power, or recognition.. and if you look at people who have those things, such as the President, politicans, stockbrokers, and celebrities, that doesn't really fill me with confidence.
posted by wackybrit at 8:50 PM on December 8, 2007

I understand where you're coming from. But I've come to believe that total trust, openness, and vulnerability are just as silly as total cynicism, manipulation of others, and self-interest.

All people are somewhere on a long continuum of morality. Some are very self-focused, and will do just about anything to move their own desires along, no matter whom it hurts. Some are very altruistic to the point of self-sacrifice, and will miss chances to make a positive impact on others because they're afraid to take a stand.

It's up to each of us to develop a set of boundaries that work in our lives. Knowing that human beings are variable and changeable, it makes sense to protect ourselves a little bit. Other people are not always acting with your best interests at heart. They are doing the best they can, with what they have, where they are; but that might not be the best for you. It doesn't mean the others are evil.

It means you need to know what's good for you.

You need to choose the influences in your life that are positive for you.

You need to determine what thoughts you give credence and what you write off as emotional variability, insecurity, or low energy talking.

In the end, trust only yourself to decide what influences are making you feel better, stronger, and more like yourself. If your worldview is profoundly impacted by the way others act, keep pursuing a stronger and more individual worldview. Your life is ultimately your life, regardless of what other people do and say. You have your own moral code and ethical sense. The better you know yourself and accept yourself, the more able you will be to recognize and tolerate differences between yourself and others. When you can tolerate differences, you will find that barriers between yourself and others begin to fall. You no longer carry a set of expectations to which others have to measure up before you will begin to be close to them. You understand that their paths may be profoundly different from yours, and their moral conclusions different as well, but you are strong enough in the knowledge that your own choices are right for you that you can connect and enjoy the places where your humanity has confluence.
posted by Miko at 9:17 PM on December 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd say that people who do good things do tend to be happier, but happiness is not a reward from society but a reward from yourself. I don't think that the larger society rewards honest, down to earth "goodness." The way a large society can reward people is with wealth, power, or recognition.. and if you look at people who have those things, such as the President, politicans, stockbrokers, and celebrities, that doesn't really fill me with confidence.

Well, again, I wasn't talking of huge, overt rewards - I wouldn't disagree that the most "obvious" rewards are given for things other than "goodness" - but even so I stand by the idea that we're socially set up to reward goodness as well. For instance, I remember hanging out in my office's IT help desk department when requests would come through from people who had a history of being total pricks in that "You people suck why didn't you fix my lame little pointless problem yesterday even though I only told you about it ten minutes ago and I'm cc'ing this email to my boss and your boss and their bosses so everyone knows how bloody useless you are" sense, and from people who had a history of being respectful and good-natured and just generally able to treat other people like human beings - and guess whose requests would get handled first, and whose would get "accidentally" overlooked as long as possible? Similarly, I know darned well that even though it's not something I deliberately think about, in the class I teach if I have multiple students email me a request on the same day it will ALWAYS be the person who's left me with a good impression of them as just a "nice" person, either in their interactions with me or with their classmates, whose question or issue I will deal with first - even though I certainly won't bend rules for one person over another and thus there's no clear 'overt' reward for being 'good' to others, there are certainly times when even small things like getting a more immediate response will help a person. Or if someone knows I've treated them honestly in the past they may give me more trust/leeway in the future, which given a particular situation might be 'rewarding' to me depending on what it is I need/want to do. Heck, try even just giving up your seat on the subway for someone sometime - being thanked by them and sometimes even smiled at by one of the other riders can be rewarding in a sense ...

I guess I'm just trying to say that society can reward with things other than heaps of wealth, power, or recognition - sometimes it's as simple and subtle as a person not making your life any more difficult than they need to, or in some small manner going out of their way to make your life a little easier, or to make you feel that what you did was appreciated. Not huge things, maybe more like "micropayments" - no one particular reward is going to make it all worthwhile but they do add up and taken as a whole do, I think, come from a society that does reward goodness (and thus - when taken in conjunction with the reward that undoubtedly comes 'from within' - gives me reason to believe and expect that other people want to be good, too)...
posted by zeph at 9:18 PM on December 8, 2007

If you believe that people are inherently good, and you approach the world with trust — if you might accurately be described as dewy-eyed and idealistic — if you believe that justice occurs and evil is punished...How do you handle the problem of evil (i.e., an all-powerful all-good God wouldn't sit by and let atrocities happen) — and the fact that evil does, repeatedly, go unpunished and oft even is rewarded — in light of this worldview that the world is inherently good and can be trusted? don't. You change your worldview. Happens all the time.

Often, it happens when you're 19 and taking a Western Civ class, and reading a range of essays on the nature of morality and existence. But if you didn't have that experience organically, you may want to simulate it.
posted by bingo at 1:49 AM on December 9, 2007

The thing about emotional shielding is that it doesn't actually help.
posted by flabdablet at 2:25 AM on December 9, 2007

My world view is essentially fatalistic, but not in a pessimistic way. I regard people as having inherent goodness and weakness, and I regard evil acts as the product of weakness as opposed to a person being intrinsically evil.

How do you handle the problem of evil (i.e., an all-powerful all-good God wouldn't sit by and let atrocities happen) — and the fact that evil does, repeatedly, go unpunished and oft even is rewarded — in light of this worldview that the world is inherently good and can be trusted?

Because I believe that everyone ultimately does what they are fated to do, I don't feel any need to see retributive justice take place. I still believe in a justice system for the purposes of deterrence, containment and rehabilitation but I don't think it's necessary to divide people into Good and Evil in order for it to work. For me, fatalism means that it's never wrong to love somebody because they're just doing what was scripted for them.

I think the trust thing is as much about your confidence that you can survive if people let you down as it is to do with maintaining a belief that they won't. Develop a habit of being kind to yourself and I think you'll feel less vulnerable.
posted by teleskiving at 2:37 AM on December 9, 2007

There is an article in Scientific American called "The Science of Lasting Happiness," which had a line:

"So Lyubomirsky started with three promising strategies: kindness, gratitude and optimism--all of which past research had linked with happiness"

('Linked' here means correlation, not causation.)

It may be paradoxically helpful to think of your attitudes as selfish. Under some circumstances they could be harmful (for example, trusting a con-artist with the family savings). How 'good' people are is often conditional - a starving person may steal bread, and a rich person may think downsizing people out of work really is a good thing. Compassion for others is easy when you share the same circumstances, not so easy if those circumstances are alien to you.

By taking your own attitudes as selfish, as aimed towards your own happiness, it takes the onus off the other person to meet your standards. 'Fear leads to anger, anger to hate, hate to the Dark Side.' Something like that.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:24 AM on December 9, 2007

This reminds me of a great line from the great show Six Feet Under: something along the lines of "I do know that if you think of life as a vending machine, where you put in virtue and get back happiness, you're bound to be disappointed."

This, along with your question, is something I've struggled with a lot myself. I've come to the conclusion that the best approach is to approach people in an open matter, expecting that they will be good and trustworthy. And then if they prove themselves unworthy of that expectation, do not take it as a personal rejection, or as proof that this openness is mispaced. Take as your guiding principal in life that openness will lead to more good things than bad, and try to view the bad as bumps along the road, rather than as permanent setbacks.

I think this aproach does require a certain level of comfort in one's own skin, a certain self-posession. When you're really comfortable with yourself, when you know who you are, it's a lot easier to open yourself to people without fear of rejection or being taken advantage of. I also think you're a lot less likely to be taken advantage of, because chronic takers-of-advantage (sociopaths, addicts, the emotionally immature, etc) will be less drawn to you.

Again, this is something I'm still working on myself, but one thing that has helped me a lot is meditation and yoga. This might sound weird if you've never meditated or done yoga, but something about these activities help me both feel more comfortable with myself and (somewhat as a result) more able to approach the world with a sense of optimism and an openess towards other people. Going back to the approach I suggested in the first para of this long response, the key is to find a way to be somewhat detached from the outcomes. You can't control outcomes (ie, how people will treat you), you can only control the inputs (how you approach the world).

Incidentally, this response may be a bit more geared towards anwering your earlier question, but hopefully it will help you with this more philiosophical question as well.
posted by lunasol at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2007

I cannot remember who said it, maybe St. Thomas? But the general idea was:

"Evil does not exist. What may be perceived as evil is merely the lack of good."

I don't know, it may be idealist but i like the idea that people are inherently good and that evil does not exist. If there is no evil, there is nothing that is punishable (assuming you believe in a god who actively involves himself in our world).
posted by Black_Umbrella at 2:42 PM on December 9, 2007

Hmm, to me this question has two things going on: 1) "good...evil...justice" 2) "...the urge to protect yourself from hurt and attack." Myself, I have been working to separate these two things. I try to keep my hurt feelings away from any urge to judge or label. Just because I felt hurt doesn't mean they violated any social code. Beyond the very basic ones, it's hard to find normative ethics that work in intimate relationships with highly-particular human beings. I remind myself how weird I am, and how the best relationships I've had have been much less about justice and right, and much more an artful balance "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs."

To me, what is going on in those two questions (besides the fact that your friend disappeared, which sucks) is that you seem to get strongly attached to people and to feel very deeply hurt when they go away.

You might try shifting to a messier sense of what the world should be. I've started really thinking about the ways I'm screwed up and the fortunate blessings I have that various people still tolerate me when I say something stupid. The more I do this, the less I think of stupid things they do as "betrayals." I'm also trying to let myself respond in messier ways. Analogy: At work, we're considering how "Web 2.0" we want a certain project to be. Do we delete comments that are opposite to our goals? Many want to delete them, but my take is, let's first try just ARGUING with them. Having those arguments is part of what might get various people to see things more similarly. Likewise, rather than thinking of things that hurt as being outside the scope of what relationships are supposed to include, I'm trying to see them as places where I need to argue. So (depending on whatever are the particular ways you get hurt), you might look at your ability to protect yourself from those things at various stages along the way. Instead of a binary "you're in vs. you're out" decision, it could be a range of possibilities ("okay, we'll let you in the store but if we see you shoplifting, we're calling the cops"). But having that work depends on having a fairly robust personal security system.

You might also like the book When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. This might reduce the pain associated with "betrayals." It's partially about re-calibrating your sense of "normal" and what you can deal with. "Oh, you were betrayed? Well, welcome to the real world. You were just deluding yourself when you thought someone else's constant company was going to save you from your loneliness, or your work was going to give your life meaning. Get comfortable here. Hey, is it even really that bad? I mean, did life really ever have meaning?" Then, those times when you're trusting someone and everything is going well, can be like a vacation to Hawaii. Why would you turn down a trip to the beach just because the following week you'd have to return to work? In a somewhat similar vein, you might watch The Shadowlands, about how someone has a relationship with someone knowing she's going to die.

To try to make sense of these scattered comments, I try to see most people as good, then see the hurts as being a function of my feelings/needs and this person's tendency to act (rather than thinking any hurts are a result of some ethical or moral breach on their part). Then my approach -- so I don't have to be so on-guard so far in advance -- is to adjust my expectation of happiness downward (life isn't hawaii), reduce my fear of the non-hawaii state (it's not so bad really), see betrayals as part of life rather than something I should prevent, reinforce my sense that we all do it (by looking at my foot-in-mouth statements), and empower myself to intervene at any time (just argue) rather than having to predict who will be good vs. bad right up front.
posted by salvia at 3:09 PM on December 9, 2007

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