Thank you naivety for failing me again. (Laura Marling)1
I grew up in a part of the city, and at a time, where “street smarts” were essential to survival, especially if you were a small kid with a smart mouth. Some of the adults around me were untrustworthy as well — abusive, neglectful, and/or predatory. I learned early in life naivety was dangerous and it was essential to read every situation for hazards.
In my early 20s, I began going to church and attending bible college. I did my best to live out “Christian values”. I assumed others were doing that as well (and most did). I also had the privilege of working for organizations with strong values and ethical leaders. These ethical contexts had significant advantages over what I grew up with, yet they also lulled me to sleep about the necessity for a new version of street smarts geared toward adult life. While most people were trustworthy, perils lurked inside and outside some of these organizations. Naivety was dangerous.
Naivety is particularly dangerous anytime people are trying to retain or accumulate some form of power, especially if they see you as an obstacle to that power or a means to their ends. Robert Caro, biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, writes about power. For Caro, power doesn’t always corrupt, but it always reveals.
“Really, my books are an examination of what power does to people. Power doesn’t always corrupt, and you can see it in the case of, for example, Al Smith or Sam Rayburn. There, power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal, because when you’re climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you’re really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it. With Robert Moses, you see power becoming an end in itself, transforming him into an utterly ruthless person. In Passage of Power, I describe speechwriter Dick Goodwin trying to find out if Johnson is sincere about civil rights, and Johnson tells him, I swore to myself when I was teaching those kids in Cotulla that if I ever had the power, I was going to help them. Now I have the power and I mean to use it. You see Johnson wanted to do all along. Or at least a thing he wanted to do all along . . .” 2
Note Caro’s insightful observation. For people to accumulate power they have to conceal at least some of their true intentions. Those true intentions may be for greater good or they may be self-serving. But, there is always more going on. We need to being paying attention.
We can and should trust most people, but naivety is dangerous and can cost us nearly everything!
1 Laura Marling. Album: Once I Was An Eagle. Song: Saved These Words. 2013. Label: Virgin. Producer: Ethan Johns.
2 Robert Caro. Working. Robert A. Caro, Inc. Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.