Default Settings

Posted on December 14, 2020


I was recently reading a Bosch novel.  If you are unfamiliar with them, the novels are a series by Michael Connelly featuring the exploits of LAPD detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.  Bosch is the archetypal loner outsider who is always bucking the system, and (spoiler alert) always solves the case and saves his career (more or less) despite opposition from within and without the department. 

One of the things that occurred to me about Harry is that his default position is to dislike and mistrust the people that he meets, knows, and interacts with.  Many of the characters with whom he interacts are not the most likeable and trustworthy lot, but dislike and even contempt does seem to be Bosch’s starting position.  Granted, he is fictional, but this does rather lend itself to a rather miserable existence.  Though we root for Bosch, because he is on the side of right and truth, it is hard to imagine any reader wanting to be Harry. 

Will Rogers is famously quoted as saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”  Perhaps that quote persists because that is such an extraordinary claim.  I could not agree with Rogers that I have liked everyone I ever met, but I would say that the vast majority of the people that I know and have known are likeable.  My default setting is that everyone is doing the best they can according to their current understanding and level of functioning.  Also among those default settings is that we all do and say the things we do for a reason.  If you spend enough time trying to understand another person, the way they act will make sense.  My experience is that it is more the exception that one’s motivation is malevolence. 

One of the pitfalls for therapists that goes all the way back to our old friend, Siggy (i.e. Freud) is countertransference.  This is where the therapist is reacting to the client based upon the therapist’s previous relationship experience.  In couples therapy, it usually takes the form of (internally) siding with one of the partners.  One solution to this problem offered by Dan Wile (who is the theorist behind Collaborative Couples Therapy) is that the therapist should become a spokesperson for the partner which the therapist is internally siding against.  What is this person’s inner struggle?  What does this person need to have heard?  When one gets to digging into the person’s experience, it becomes easier to empathize with that person. 

We probably ought to at least talk about trust.  I would suggest that trust is not binary.  It isn’t that everyone you meet is trustworthy or not, we are all somewhere on a continuum.  Further, trust isn’t just one thing.  There is honesty and integrity, but there is also heart trust.  The former is about whether I can believe you are telling me the truth as you understand it.  It is also about whether I can trust that you will act with honesty and integrity (e.g. not stealing or defrauding).  The latter is about emotional trust.  Are you a safe place for my heart?  If I share private thoughts and feelings with you, will you keep my confidences?  If I am vulnerable with you, will you not throw it back in my face or use it against me later?  My suggested solution for this issue is boundaries.  People get the benefit of the doubt, but not in a naïve fashion.  The safer the other person has proven to be, the softer the boundaries can be with that person. 

If you go through life with the default setting being that other people are not likeable and can’t be trusted, no one will ever disappoint you.  However, your life will not be better for the experience.  I would suggest that it is much better to be occasionally hurt or cheated than to never give anyone the chance.  The research would support this position.  Human beings are made for relationship.  We die in isolation.  It is our connection to each other that protects from both physical and mental illness. 

Perhaps, reexamining our default settings might be in order.  With Christmas less than 2 weeks away, I am reminded of what the angels said “on earth, peace and goodwill toward men[1] [i.e. mankind, humans].”  Though the angels were speaking of God’s goodwill towards people, perhaps we can strive for the same. 

[1] Luke 2:14 (Jimmy’s translation; i.e. King James Version).  It’s the version Linus quotes. 

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