“Ouch. I thought I could trust you.”

When people we trust do something unkind, it throws us off balance. As we fall, our assumption that we could trust them gets thrown from our hands. To catch ourselves, we reach out for something solid to hold on to. What we grab makes a big difference about where we find ourselves when we regain our footing.

We generally reach out for one of three things. First, there’s the thrown assumption: We can trust them. Grasping at it, we cry, “Please tell me you didn’t mean it. I need to trust you again!” Of the three options, this is the closest to hand, but, shaken as we are by their insult, it is not the most solid.

Second, there’s the opposite assumption: We can’t trust them. Grasping at it, we snarl, “I get it. You’ve been jerking me around all along. Don’t even talk to me.” Of the three choices, this feels most solid because it’s informed by the hard news we’ve just received. But jumping to this conclusion usually leads to further destabilization.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Third, there’s the dilemma itself. Reaching for it, we say, “Ah, yes, this old uncertainty about whom to trust. I’ve seen it before; I’ll see it again. If there’s one solid thing in this world, it’s a perennial doubt like this one.”

Snatching at the first or second assumption comes naturally. Catching hold of the third is difficult. It requires lightning reflexes, which is unfortunate, because, of the three, it is the best handle on the situation. Holding on to the dilemma itself provides the stability from which you can investigate further, finding out more about where you really stand, without distorting the data as you gather it.

I once asked a former CIA agent what the most useful strategic skill he learned in his training was. “Going Gumby,” he said, referencing the boneless green cowboy of 1960s toy chests and Saturday-morning TV. Go soft and flexible. Observe, don’t assert. Enter the gray area. To get what you want, set aside what you want long enough to see what is. Or, as the Buddhists say, “Truth waits for eyes unclouded by desire.”

Well, if you can simply set aside what you want as the floor drops out from under you, more power to you. Most of us can’t. The next-best thing is a good reorienting focus to distract you from what you want long enough to see what is. And there’s none better than remembering the patterns of the generic dilemma you’re in. Indeed, the first pattern to notice about any dilemma is how tempting it is to ignore it, reaching out instead for your old assumption or its exact opposite.

Dilemmas, at their simplest, are choices — say, between bundles A and B. Can you trust him? Bundle A is full of the reasons you should; bundle B is full of the reasons you shouldn’t. Once you decide to trust him, you turn your back on bundle B — at least until some insult slaps you in the back of your head. Then, when you feel the sharp ache, the temptation is strong to swing around 180 degrees, forgetting all the reasons to trust and focusing instead on all the reasons to distrust. Why? For reasons fundamental to the dilemma — and, indeed, to all dilemmas.

Doubts arise when your situation is uncertain and hedging your bet won’t work. Hedging by trying to both trust and not trust defeats both purposes. Trusting and not trusting have opposite effects on people, so a both/and solution won’t work.

Giving your absolute trust forges healthy bonds with the trustworthy. It’s therefore always best to be absolutely trusting. Giving your absolute trust will ruin you if you’re dealing with the untrustworthy. It’s therefore always best to be absolutely distrusting. To trust, or not to trust? The answers are absolutely opposite, depending on who you’re dealing with. And when you can’t tell who you’re dealing with, it’s enough to make you spin and ache. The only thing as painful as trusting the untrustworthy is not trusting the trustworthy. This kind of dilemma causes us to flip-flop in one-hundred-and-achy-degree turns.

That is, unless we can recognize the dilemma itself. Then, reacting to an insult, we can make a quick 360 scan of our dilemma’s generic contours instead. The lightning reflexes that enable us to embrace the dilemma and go Gumby instead of flip-flopping comes from being able to identify the generic patterns of dilemmas on the fly.

Life poses a few such generic dilemmas (see examples below). We play them out over and over. Who to trust is one of them. A related dilemma is how much to share.

Some time ago, half of our nation was stuck in a deep twenty-year-old rut about that one. In 1979, the costs of liberalism’s commitment to sharing were inflation and a stagnant economy. Former liberal Ronald Reagan, having had a one-hundred-and-achy-degree turn, taught us that liberalism is all bad and conservativism is all good. He hired other one-hundred-and-achy-degree turncoat liberals like David Stockman and Richard Perl. Momentum built. Today, in some circles, to be a liberal is as bad as it once was to be a Communist, a Jew, or a black. Mass one-hundred-and-achy-degree-turn movements like this one against liberalism are the treachery that turns cyclical fads into fascism.

Inspired by an I-once-was-lost-but-now-I’m-blind zeal, Americans forgot that there’s a perennial dilemma at play here: Once you decide to share with your fellow American, the dilemma is, “How much?” Once you decide you’ve been sharing too much, the dilemma remains. But we forget the dilemma. Instead, we lurch one hundred and achy degrees, vilifying the promoters of sharing. The neocons exploit this tendency by labeling any policy they abhor “liberal,” and have their way with us.

Some classic generic dilemmas:

* Should I join this?

* Should I stick with this?

* Should I be consistent here?

* Can I improve this?

* Is this a sign?

* How long should I wait?

* How much should I give?

* Can this person change?

* Can I trust them?

* Should I say it?